Putting the fun in drug cartels and death
The messed up life of pilot Barry Seal gets a movie that’s not messed up enough. Director Doug Liman’s American Made is an entertaining film, about the notorious TWA pilot turned pawn for the CIA, that plays it a little too safe, with drug cartels and Iran Contra played for laughs in a story that probably didn’t have so many giggles.
Inspired by the true-life story (and some of the more outlandish stuff depicted in the film actually happened), the movie starts with Barry (Tom Cruise) 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, Barry is approached in a bar by Monty (Domhnall Gleeson), a CIA agent. After a brief discussion, Barry is given an opportunity to fly arms to South America as an unofficial courier for the U.S. (he’s set up with a fake flying company as a front). The gig soothes the adrenaline junkie in him, but doesn’t pay enough.
That’s where smuggling drugs for the Medellin drug cartel comes in, something Barry starts doing on the side. The movie depicts Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía) and Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) as almost fun-loving goofballs, and Barry becomes regular pals with them. Along the way, Barry’s operation expands to include an entire airport in Arkansas, on property large enough to fit a training ground for the Contras. He 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 an actor playing W. makes a brief appearance).
Honestly, this story might have played better as an HBO or Netflix miniseries than a big motion picture. It feels far too slick for the source material, and needed some more meat on the bone. A 10-hour running time probably wouldn’t even be enough to cover everything Barry got himself into.
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 a CIA agent, providing some of the movie’s bigger laughs. Wright does all she can with a role that provides little for her to do.
American Made can’t seem to decide whether it’s an action movie, a dark comedy or a dramatic retelling of a messed up life. It keeps up the balancing act until its final minutes, where everything comes to a crashing stop on a discordant note. The historical accounts of Barry Seal are well documented so it’s no surprise that things 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 Tom Cruise paying some kid for a bicycle and riding down the street, with the drug leaving a powder trail in his dust. American Made has enough for it to not be a waste of your time, but not enough to consider it anything more than moderately passable entertainment fare.