American Made movie review: Tom Cruise is Breaking Bad, and erasing the stench of The Mummy
Director - Doug Liman
Cast - Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright
Rating - 4/5
It would be a bit cynical to declare that the only reason American Made exists is because drug dramas are big right now. But if shows like Narcos and Breaking Bad have proven anything, it’s that there is an unexpectedly large audience hungry for tales about antiheroes peddling poison to the masses, and an even larger one that derives some sort of twisted pleasure at the sight of evil men minting more cash in a single year than the GDP of a small African country.
But this cynicism is well-founded, and maybe even a little distracting from the real story, which – and I am in no way exaggerating about this – is quite incredible. American Made is about illegal drug trade - yes - but it’s also about government corruption, and the best kept secret about President Ronald Reagan’s much-publicised War on Drugs: They were in on it.
But that is about as deep American Made is willing to go into the matter – at least seriously. The movie has absolutely no hesitation, however, in admitting the government’s long history of funding (and arming) wars they have no business getting involved in.
Pablo Escobar and his infamous Medellin Cartel make several appearances – how could they not in a story about the cocaine epidemic set in the ‘80s – but not in the manner you’d expect. While stories of Escobar’s disgusting wealth are relatively well-known – we’ve all heard about the time he set fire to $2 million just because his daughter was cold – but we often overlook why he was so popular among his people. He made a lot of them into millionaires.
And American Made is about one of those guys, played here, as dependably as ever, by Tom Cruise. Barry Seal was a commercial pilot, the annoying sort who, if he were working now, wouldn’t think twice before putting everyone on board at risk if an Instagram opportunity presented itself.
Seal’s talents – but more likely his winning personality - get the attention of the CIA, who get him to carry out a series of secret operations ‘for the country’ that involve Seal flying at low altitude over hostile enemy territory and snapping pictures.
One thing leads to another – the movie does a much better job than I am at making sense of the sheer volume of unbelievable events that happen to Seal – and he lands up in the employ of Escobar and his amigos. And soon, Seal becomes the Cartel’s primary drug mule, flying thousands of kilos of yayo into America, and finding himself with more cash than he can handle – and in more trouble than that trademark grin can get him out of.
As a director, what makes Doug Liman unique is that he has no discernible uniqueness. None. He effortlessly switches between genres and styles, themes and budgets. A career that began with an indie comedy led to a gritty spy movie and then a large-scale science fiction epic. And he’s prolific, too. Just this year, he directed a micro-budget high-concept war movie, The Wall.
It’s no wonder then that he’s a much sought after director-for-hire; he’s reliable, adaptable, and turns in good stuff. American Made is his second collaboration with Cruise - with whom he made what is perhaps the best Tom Cruise movie of the last decade: Edge of Tomorrow.
On that basis alone, American Made was high on my radar. But in a rather rude surprise, the Liman-Cruise duo isn’t even the best thing about this movie. They’re great, don’t get me wrong, and this movie will erase all the stench of Cruise’s last stinker, The Mummy. But instead, it is Liman’s (first time) partnership with DP Cesar Charlone, who’s most famous for having shot City of God back in the early aughts, that’s this film’s highlight.
There’s an energy to the flight sequences that I haven’t seen since Cruise was screaming about ‘the need for speed’ more than two decades ago. And there’s a jittery, almost cocaine-addled pace to the story – shot in a distinct, newsreel style – that I, for one, don’t remember Cruise (or Liman, for that matter) ever attempting before.
But underneath this grimy sweatiness, there’s a modern tragedy playing out. Everyone – from the low-level hitmen, to the Cartel thugs; the CIA, the FBI, the DEA to Pablo Escobar, Barry Seal… and the President – they’re all chasing the same American dream, and they’re all hungry for the same cheddah. And in the eternal words of the Joker from The Dark Knight (there’s no bad time to invoke the Joker, so shh): When the chips are down… these civilised people, they’ll eat each other.
Watch the trailer for Tom Cruise’s American Made