All in all Doug Liman and Tom Cruise‘s American Made, which I paid to see last night at the Hollywood Arclight, is a spry and frequently engaging drug-dealing dramedy. I felt irked and occasionally disengaged by the jaunty tone but never bored. The movie jumps and hops and bops around like a guy who’s just snorted a three-foot-long line of cocaine, which is appropriate given the storyline, and Cruise does his best to sell and smooth it all down with one of his patented charm-school performances.
It’s based on the real-life exploits of the late Barry Seal, a jowly-faced TWA pilot and risk junkie who began working for the CIA in the late ’70s as a flyover photographer of anti-U.S. Central American guerillas, and then as an arms smuggler and then a cocaine smuggler for the Columbia cartel guys (including Pablo Escobar), and then as a U.S. government informant against the Columbians after he was arrested and facing a 40-year sentence. He was clipped by a pair of Columbian assassins in ’86.
The problem for me was this: I wanted the movie to drill into the hard-core reality of Seal’s increasingly risky businesses and really immerse in the tension and the fear and the sweaty nitty gritty. American Made does this to some extent, but it also tries like hell to entertain the chumps by arching the tone and trying to make a lot of what Seal did seem funny and outrageous in a hoo-hah, can-you-effing-believe-this? sort of way. Every now and then I would chortle or guffaw, but mainly I wanted to experience what Seal’s wild ride was really like, without the tonal concessions to the popcorn-inhalers.
And that’s basically it. I didn’t feel burned by American Made. A fair amount of it intrigues, diverts, distracts, etc. But I didn’t buy a lot of the particulars.
I didn’t believe for a second that Cruise was doing anything more than resorting to the usual tricks and games — he’s basically doing Knight and Day again, playing the same grinning, irreverent sociopath. I didn’t believe Domhnall Gleeson as a laid-back CIA agent, certainly not with his dweeby manner, beanpole frame and stupid-looking Beatle bowl haircut. I didn’t believe Sarah Wright as Seal’s wife — too dishy, too pliant, too young and aerobically toned to be a mother of two and married to a guy who’s at least 20 years older. (In actuality she’s 22 years younger than Cruise, who turned 55 last July.)
Okay, I half-believed the Columbian cartel guys. And with Seal having assisted CIA efforts to arm the Nicaraguan contras and discredit the Sandinistas and having dealt with Reagan administration flunkies like Oliver North, I definitely believed in Doug Liman‘s investment in this story as his attorney father, Arthur Liman, served as chief counsel for the Senate’s investigation of the Iran-Contra Affair.
In his 10.2 New Yorker review, Anthony Lane writes that American Made “joins that small band of Cruise movies, like Magnolia and Collateral, which summon the nerve to dig around — to test the armor of his geniality, and to deconstruct that celebrated grin.” Yeah, I guess so but I wouldn’t get too carried away. American Made is a better-than-half-decent film, but it’s far too jokey and impish to be regarded as an art-movie equal of Magnolia, and it’s way, way below the level of Collateral.