More noise than signal

American Made

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Based, ever so loosely, on the zany life story of one Barry Seal, this Tom Cruise vehicle was going to come out in January but was pushed back to September, apparently to avoid competition with Amityville: The Awakening and Underworld: Blood Wars. I’d like to reassure you up front that this film is significantly more enjoyable than you’d expect from a film that execs were reportedly doubting would struggle against two utter turds, two unflushable, steaming toleys in cinema’s toilet.

Cruise plays Barry Seal, a young hotshot pilot finding himself bored with the day-to-day routine of his job as a TWA pilot. We’ll choose to believe him when he tells us that he’s approached by CIA operative Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) with an offer he can’t refuse. Seal is set up with his own aviation firm, and a flash new airplane, with an aftermarket modification of a surveillance camera on the undercarriage.

He’s tasked with running routes that take him over central American flashpoints, taking photos of the various rebel groups and so forth that are of interest to Uncle Sam, and soon acting as a go-between for the CIA and Noreaga. Word of this zany Yank’s exploits reaches the Medellin Cartel, as Pablo Escobar makes his way into yet more media. Escobar is so hot right now.

He’s given another offer he can’t refuse, and supplements his meagre CIA stipend with a spot of the ol’ drug smuggling. This proves insanely lucrative, and even more so after the CIA ask him to run guns down to the Contras, who I believe were a popular Konami franchise at the time. And so it goes, with Seal expanding his team to keep all of these groups happy. Well, for a while, at least.

Whilst all this is going on, Barry must also keep his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) and their kids in the dark about this, well, at least until the amount of cash they’re hiding in every available nook and cranny renders any cover story suspect. His home life, and reliability of the cover story takes a hit when Lucy’s brother and serial screw-up JB (Caleb Landry Jones) arrives and through multiple indiscretions attracts the notice of pretty much every crime investigation agency in the USA, although they’d already started to notice what’s going on, and a net closes around Barry, with the CIA quick to slap a burn notice on Barry and disavow all knowledge.

There’s further twists to the tale before Barry’s story comes to a sudden end, but you’ve probably got the gist of the film. The movie is framed around Barry recording a series of video diaries detailing his exploits, so he can be used as a narrator to jump between timeframes, a device which works well enough, particularly in a film that’s not taking itself entirely seriously.

This film is centred almost entirely on Cruise’s turn, and I’m sure there are some people tired of the couch-jumping fool, but he’s for me he’s still charismatic enough to enhance a middling script and story such as we see here to really be rather enjoyable. It’s aided by its pacey delivery, and a few very effective aerial action scenes.

Doug Liman’s film is wearing its influences on its sleeve, and if you are going to draw from a film, Goodfellas isn’t a terrible template to follow. Cruise’s manic energy pulls us thought Barry’s madcap adventures, although I’m sure it goes without saying that this isn’t a patch on Goodfellas. What is? In particular, imagine if Goodfellas didn’t have De Niro or Pesci to counterbalance Liotta’s turn – it’d probably still be very enjoyable, I’d wager, but nowhere near a classic. Which is exactly where American Made winds up, and that’s no bad thing.

Who wouldn’t want to watch an enjoyable film? People who hate joy and filthy communists, that’s who. You’re not a communist, are you? No, well, I recommend you schedule this film into your viewing plans, even if it’s not an absolute priority.

Rejected running jokes for this review: references to Seal Team 6, Seal lyrics, Seals of approval, and something really tenuous about the Chuckle Brothers. I’ve not been well.