American Made

American-Made-rev American Made  (2017)    Universal/Action-Comedy    RT: 115 minutes    Rated R (language throughout, some sexuality, nudity)    Director: Doug Liman    Screenplay: Gary Spinelli    Music: Christophe Beck    Cinematography: Cesar Charlone    Release date: September 29, 2017 (US)    Cast: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, Jesse Plemons, Caleb Landry Jones, Lola Kirke, Jayma Mays, Alejandro Edda, Benito Martinez, E. Roger Mitchell, Jed Rees, Fredy Yate Escobar, Mauricio Mejia.    

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 Fact: Barry Seal was a real person. Fact: He smuggled drugs for Pablo Escobar. Fact: When caught, he agreed to become a government informant. Fiction: Virtually everything else in American Made that the makers try to pass off as fact. Did Seal really work for the CIA? Did he really deliver guns to the Contras on behalf of the US government? Did the CIA, with Seal’s help, really set up a secret training camp for the South American rebels on US soil? It depends on whether or not you believe a word that comes out of his mouth. As played by Tom Cruise, you’re at least willing to listen to his story. And it’s one hell of a story he has to tell!

 American Made is kind of a cross between Goodfellas, Blow and Air America with a dash of Top Gun thrown in. It’s all there, check the math. Rise and fall of a major criminal? Check. American Dream gone wrong? Check.  A government involved in a secret drug smuggling operation? Airborne antics performed with reckless abandon? Check. Cruise playing a cocky/charming maverick with a killer smile? That’s a great big checkeroo! Put it together and it makes for a reasonably entertaining action-comedy.

 American-MadeBefore I start the plot description, let me remind you that American Made is largely fictionalized. What happens in the movie may or may not be reflective of how Seal’s story really went down. That being said, here we go. In 1978, Seal is working as a pilot for TWA. He’s bored and longs for adventure. The only excitement he gets is scaring passengers and his co-pilot by deliberately sending the plane into a nosedive. One day he’s approached by a shadowy CIA agent calling himself “Schafer” (Gleeson, Rogue One) who wants Seal to secretly work for the agency. He wants him to fly recon missions over South American countries, taking photos of suspected Communist groups like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Being the hotshot that he is, he flies low which always results in him being shot at.

 Eventually, Seal starts doing other things for the CIA like bringing guns to rebel groups fighting the Communists. One day he’s snatched up by men working for cocaine kingpin Escobar who “asks” him to smuggle his product into the US by way of Florida. Seal has a better idea; wrap the bricks in life jackets and drop them into the Louisiana Bayou where Escobar’s guy can collect them. The CIA doesn’t seem to care about Seal’s new arrangement by the DEA does. To avoid arrest, he moves his wife Lucy (Wright, 21 & Over) and kids to a small town (Mena, AR) in the middle of the night.

 It isn’t long before Seal is making loads and loads of money. He makes so much money with his various ventures that he runs out of places to hide it on his large expanse of property. He even runs out of places to bury it. In movies like American Made, there must be a downfall. Seal’s begins when his redneck brother-in-law JB (Jones, Get Out) moves in. The guy is a real bum. Seal gives him a job and he repays him by stealing and spending money which attracts the attention of the authorities. It goes downhill from there.

 Ordinarily, I don’t like Cruise. He had no business starring in last summer’s Mummy debacle. He’s a very one-note actor. He almost always plays the same character, the one we’ve seen in Top Gun, Cocktail, Days of Thunder, The Firm, Jerry Maguire and many others. He brings a lot of that to American Made. I doubt that the real Barry Seal is anything like he’s depicted here but would the movie be as entertaining if the makers went for accuracy in character? Probably not. In fact, it would be a different movie. I don’t know much of anything about the real Seal but his story is something else. If even a third of it is true, this guy lived a life more exciting than anything even Walter Mitty could imagine.

 American Made has its funny moments and its tense moments. When the tide turns against Seal, his life is in danger from his South American associates who don’t like leaving loose ends. They especially don’t like being screwed over. We join Seal in looking over his shoulder for the final 30-40 minutes of the movie. Directed by Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity), it doesn’t have the same sense of urgency as the first Matt Damon super-spy flick. He doesn’t employ the same visual style- i.e. frenetic editing, zoom shots, etc. He uses a simpler style to give it the feel of a movie made in the early 80s (which is mainly when it’s set). Liman also shows us the political hypocrisy of that era when those in power accepted money from drug lords while condemning their product and its users- e.g. Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” speech.

 I wouldn’t call American Made a great movie but it is a pretty good one. What I mean is that I was entertained. I like how it draws energy from the escalating madness of Seal’s exploits. You know his whole world will come crashing down in a big way eventually. The question is when. One of the movie’s biggest laughs is when multiple agencies show up at the same time to arrest Seal at his private airfield. It gets a bit convoluted at times but it’s never confusing. More importantly, it’s never boring. It moves along at a nice clip. It has a cool soundtrack. It's well-made. It’s a good flick, a nice choice for a Saturday night movie.

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