‘American Made’ flies high with thrills, humor but falters from featherweight narrative

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

“American Made” came packaged, perhaps to its detriment, with high expectations. Promisingly, it is a reteam between Tom Cruise and his “Edge of Tomorrow” director Doug Liman — one of the few directors of late to successfully scratch away at the frustratingly curated Cruise veneer. And as a true-tale story ripe for both moral drama and some healthy U.S. spy action a la Liman’s work on “The Bourne Identity,” this film could, possibly, have been a wild ride that also brought forward some depthful questions about the intersection between personal responsibility and seizing opportunity.

It’s not quite that, but this bonkers, too-batshit-ridiculous-to-be-made-up story of a going-nowhere commercial airline pilot named Barry Seal, who within the span of a few years finds himself running cocaine north for Pablo Escobar and AK-47s south for the U.S. government, is entertaining enough in its own right.

That’s not to say, despite the uniqueness of its narrative, that it never feels derivative — our protagonist’s arc mirrors that of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and there are moments of flying antics that feel like a deliberately constructed “Top Gun” ethos, as if preparing us for the long-overdue (and perhaps now unwise) sequel now in the works.

“American Made” has a lot going for it, which makes its lack of lasting impression a little puzzling. Much like in “Edge of Tomorrow,” and very unlike Cruise’s go-to franchises “Mission Impossible” and “Jack Reacher,” this film finds Cruise’s star power subverted at least somewhat, placing him in a “blown by the wind” environment in which the best he can do is react to things being done to him. In a pleasant surprise, those reactions are often a source of great humor, with one or two deadpans that had the entire theater in fits — and Liman plays here with form as well, including “hand-drawn” maps and a John Oliver-style joke mocking audience’s lack of geographical awareness for South American countries.  

Outside of the map-narrated intercuts, “City of God” cinematographer César Charlone brings a nicely peripatetic camera to both the ground and ariel scenes of the film, and he washes out his color palette to give the film a more “documentary” feel — including some gloriously degraded VHS-recorded confessions by Seal.

But despite the film’s entertainment value, it carries itself with a feather-like weight, as if the scant, declassified details of Seal’s life didn’t permit the filmmakers to let his character consider the impacts of his actions — namely, what the drugs and guns were used for once he delivered them. We’re talking about someone who began amassing so much money the FBI took note of the number of banks and trusts being formed in his town — so much, in fact, that he had to bury suitcases of it in the backyard, in the shed, in his closets, etc. Oddly, though, he never really seemed to spend very much of it.

On the flipside of all his clandestine flights and procedures to avoid the DEA and customs, we are presented with a man who seems to genuinely care about his wife (Sarah Wright) and kids — a portrayal that is ambiguous as to whether it’s more fact than fiction or vice versa, but a look into Seal’s actual life reveals a frustrating discord with reality in his rosy portrayal as a morally absolved family man.

It’s more than a little suspicious that the most unscrupulous actions Seal takes on the screen amount to taking a shot or two in Escobar’s company, given that the real figure’s first notable action (before being contacted by the CIA, unlike in this adaptation) was being arrested for trying to smuggle explosives into Mexico while a TWA pilot. But, it seems we aren’t allowed to see Cruise portraying a bad guy, so “morally ambiguous” is as close as the film gets to exploring how Seal felt about the effects of his massive operation.

Given the film’s exciting sequences (including a gem in which Seal crash lands in a suburban neighborhood, emerges covered head to toe in coke, and pays off a kid with some bills before riding off on his bike) and genuinely enjoyable moments, the shortcomings of “American Made” seem to point at the script — and to a degree, the editing — which reveals some thrown-away subplots and glimpses of arguments that got lost.

Nevertheless, it’s nice to see Cruise acting again and to shake our heads in amazement at the ridiculousness that was possible in the ‘80s.

Contact Imad Pasha at [email protected].