The messed-up life of pilot Barry Seal gets a movie that's not messed up enough in American Made, a sufficiently entertaining film that plays it a little too safe. Drug cartels and Iran Contra are played for laughs in a story that probably shouldn't have us giggling all that much.
The movie winds up being moderately enjoyable thanks to Tom Cruise sweating it out in the lead role. While his work here doesn't rival his best, it's miles better than what he put forth in The Mummy, that shitstorm that put his career on pause this past summer. Director Doug Liman (who teamed with Cruise on the sci-fi masterpiece Edge of Tomorrow) rips off Catch Me if You Can, The Wolf of Wall Street, Goodfellas, Blow, and many more in telling the story of the notorious TWA pilot turned pawn for the CIA.
Inspired by Seal's true story (and some of the more outlandish stuff depicted in the film actually happened) the movie starts with Seal grinding out flights for TWA, smuggling the occasional box of Cuban cigars and trying to support a family that includes his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright).
During a layover, Seal is approached in a bar by Monty (Domhnall Gleeson), a possible arm for the CIA. After a brief discussion, Barry is given an opportunity to fly arms to Central America as an unofficial courier for the U.S.A. (He's set up with a fake flying company as a front.) The gig soothes the adrenaline junkie in Seal, but it doesn't pay enough.
That's where smuggling drugs for the Medellin drug cartel comes in, something Seal starts doing on the side. The movie depicts Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia) and Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) as almost fun-loving goofballs, and Seal becomes regular pals with them. Along the way, Seal's operation expands to include an entire airport in Mena, Arkansas, on property large enough to fit a training ground for the Contras. Seal basically has his hand in everything.
The movie is a whirlwind of activity, but skimpy on some of the details that could make it more than just a silly blast. The likes of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. are reduced to stock news footage (although W. makes a brief appearance portrayed by an actor).
One element clearly stolen from Goodfellas is the whole "breaking the fourth wall to narrate" tactic. Liman is able to pull this off through a series of videotapes Seal makes when he's on the run, and we see bits throughout the movie used as story framing devices. It's a way to help out the viewer with all the different plot threads and time jumps going on.
Honestly, this story might've played better as an HBO or Netflix miniseries than a big motion picture. It feels far too slick for the story, and needed some more meat on the bone. A good 10-hour running time probably wouldn't even be enough to cover everything Seal got himself into. It feels too massive for a feature length running time.
Cruise brings his reliable movie star prowess to the project, and it can safely be said that, while the movie might get a little messy, it is never boring. That's because Cruise, as he often does, puts his everything into the role. Gleeson is decent in his fictional representation of the CIA, providing some of the movie's bigger laughs. Wright does all she can with a thinly written role.
American Made can't seem to decide whether it's an action movie, a dark comedy or a dramatic retelling of a scandalous life. It keeps up the balancing act admirably until its final minutes, where everything comes to a crashing stop on a discordant note. Anybody who knows anything about Seal would know that things would take a dark turn, but the film's final tonal shift is handled poorly.
Still, you can do worse at the movie theater than seeing a cocaine-coated Cruise paying some kid for a bicycle and riding down the street, with the cocaine leaving a smoky powder trail. American Made has enough for it not to be a waste of your time, but not enough to consider it anything more than merely passable moviemaking. ■