Just like Baby Driver, I thought the trailers to American Made looked sooooo stupid, an imitation of a retro, 70s action biopic starring an overzealous, Xenu-loving celebrity. After watching the film, I must humbly apologize to everyone involved with this rip-roaring, relentlessly entertaining flick who I so insensitively disparaged. I’m sorry Tom Cruise, for not trusting your manic energy and effortless cool when you brought pilot turned CIA covert operative and drug/gun smuggler Barry Seal to life. I’m sorry writer Gary Spinelli for not believing you would be able to craft such an entertaining, rich story that’s wholly devoid of cliches or derivatives. And I’m oh so sorry director Doug Liman, for not believing in your ability to keep action and humor firmly balanced while giving your film a unique look and perspective, true to the times but accessible enough for modern audiences. You all did a great job. Mazel Tov.
It’s a thrill of a movie, proceeding briskly and throwing a lot of information and characters at us but never with us feeling as we can’t handle the storytelling weight. Scenes often progress just seconds at a time, a clever maneuver that bodes well to accurately portraying just how much Seal was traveling during this period in his life. When there’s action or a suspenseful sequence, we feel floored. When there’s humor, we genuinely laugh. When there’s a luxury Medellin apartment being raided by police with assault rifles causing Seal to end up in a overcrowded prison while missing a tooth, we feel…well, we feel good.
The first moment where the film reveals its true greatness is when Barry is trying to take off from a Colombian airstrip for the first time, his plane too heavy with cocaine, and the runway too short for him to achieve flight without crashing. Drug lords are hoping he does achieve liftoff, they need to see their product hit the shores of the U.S., but at the same time they’re betting large chunks of money on whether Seal will crash. We obviously know he’s going to make it, we’re only maybe 30 minutes into the movie, he can’t just die here, right? But there’s a genuine thrill, a deep-seated worry in the back of our heads that he won’t, that the story will cut to black right then and there and cinema employees will walk inside with brooms and trashcans, waiting to pick up after us. Maybe its divine intervention, or maybe Seal is just that good of a pilot, but he gets going, succeeding where other pilots failed, escaping the country with multiple kilos of cocaine and his life. Hot damn!
It’s the same type of cathartic joy one gets when watching films like Scarface or Blow, the reward of rooting for the underdog whose getting rich doing something essentially immoral despite The Man’s best wishes. The main difference is Seal is being backed by man (the CIA) while still being pursued by other enforcement agencies (DEA, FBI, Arkansas state police), and is all quite hilarious when these forces pulling at Barry come to a head. It’s something that only a director like Liman, whose previous films include the Bourne trilogy and Edge of Tomorrow, can pull off, kinetic action buckled with stylish, slick humor.
The film’s only weakness is its lack of emotion. Seal’s hillbilly brother-in-law comes to visit after the family strikes it rich, serving as a worthy nuisance but his arc reaches its endpoint, its lack of impact on the plot and us viewers is unsatisfying. Sarah Wright, who plays Lucy, the Seal family matriarch, is a delight as a no-nonsense person, countering Cruise’s energy with her own lively, verbal jabs. They’re great fun, but their characters aren’t given enough darkness. Even when things get bad for the couple, they never really feel that bad, that there’s not really that much at stake with Seal’s nefarious activities.
But the film still remains a delight. It’s a picture that doesn’t have much lurking under the surface in complexity but will remain endlessly watchable over the next few years. Cruise proves that he still has star power and that even being a mega-mega-celeb, we don’t have to question his abilities to take us one hell of a flight.