The trouble with watching a film starring Tom Cruise, is that you’re watching a film starring Tom Cruise. Like an inescapable truth, when watching a Cruise movie, the only thing you really see is him, such is his stardom. Just think of all the Tom Cruise movies you’ve seen. Top Gun, Mission Impossible (and such sequels), Cocktail, (and so on), the most memorable thing about them, truly, is that Tom Cruise is in them. This can work well for him, granted, and there is no denying that Cruise has made a fair few great movies, but he’s starred in a load of awful ones too. He too, is a movie itch you can’t help but scratch. You know you shouldn’t, but once you do, it’s addictive, you keep going, watching back to back movies of basically the same character doing the same thing over and over. Jumping from planes, sleeping with Hollywood standard beautiful women, firing some guns, and jumping from planes again. Cruise can never escape himself, or his star persona, and this is the Cruise we also find in American Made. But, and there is a but, it isn’t all that bad. The other thing about Tom is that he makes enjoyable films, and that is no different here.
Directed by Doug Liman, the man behind Jumper, Mr & Mrs Smith, and the Cruise starring Edge of Tomorrow, Liman is a man who knows his genre well. Yet having seen most of Liman’s films without really paying attention to the fact that he directed them, or without paying attention to the movie other than thinking, ‘yeah that looked cool’ or, in typical Michael Bay fashion ‘nice explosion!’, I find myself, for the most part, doing the same here. It’s all surface level stuff.
The movie itself follows the life and times of Barry Seal, whose name is as unbelievable as his story (it is true though, so fair enough). Without giving too many spoilers, although it’s a true story, so sorry, but the plot is basically a spoiler for the movie, Cruise take’s up Seal’s mantel as a one-time TWA airplane pilot turned CIA bag man/recon man (thanks to Domhnall Gleeson’s turn as ‘Schafer’), Medellin Cartel drug smuggler and, as we are reminded throughout, ‘the gringo who always delivers’. From dropping cocaine for Pablo Escobar to delivering AK47’s to the militias in Nicaragua, countering the communist threat for the USA, the whole story is insane. He even ends up in the White House. When I say it’s a somewhat if not total implausible story, I’m not joking.
Written by Gary Spinelli, the truth is as fast and loose as the movie. Yes, most of that did happen (although not in the order we’re shown). But Cruise hardly represents the real-life Seal, looking nothing like the man himself. In fact, Seal resembles Christian Bale in American Hustle more than he does when played by Cruise. And this is where the movie falls a little flat. It’s too flash.
Going back to my opening gambit about Cruise, there is a guarantee here of what to expect from American Made, because Tom Cruise is in it. It follows the film theory known as ‘Star Studies’, or ‘Star Theory’ (or anything with ‘star’ in the title), and the general notion that because Cruise is such an icon of cinema, in a certain genre, with a certain cultivated image, generated by both himself, the studios he’s worked for, and Hollywood, the audience knows what to expect from him. We know he’s going to be cool, he’s going to look good and he’s going to be in a plane, because he’s in it. It’s all a little too predictable, a little too ‘shit eating grin, look at what I’ve just got away with’.
Yet, in those moments where he slips outside of these expectations, such as crash landing in a Louisiana town covered in cocaine, cycling away from the scene on a child’s bike, is where the movie is at its best, and where it saves itself from becoming another Tom Cruise movie, (see The Mummy for that). There too, is a hand full of scenes that feel real, earthy and tangible, but they end up getting lost amongst the rest. Amongst the planes, the drugs and the money. And really, that’s what the movie is about, which is a shame in the end, because in the moments where it slows down, takes stock, and explores the relative ‘unknown’ sense of what will finally happen to Seal, is where the film truly works as a biopic, and one that is engaging. It’s true too that the subplot of his family could have been fleshed out further. But in the similar throwaway fashion of Wolf of Wall Street, Seal’s wife Lucy (Sally Wright) is underused in her role, and never reaches beyond the realm of blonde trophy wife. Whilst we get some insight into their relationship, real or not, it all comes back to money in the end. His kids too, whoever they may be, suffer the same fate.
That’s the real disappointment with American Made, it could be so much more. It seems odd as well, that in a movie which covers the late 70s and early 80s, so much potential is lost when it comes to the soundtrack. Having recently watched Atomic Blonde, where the music propelled the movie forward, here it seems void of such willingness to play with the time in which it was set. And whilst it gives some stock clips of Jimmy Carter, and later Ronald Regan, discussing the drug related and communist related matters we see played out on screen, it feels as though the historical content has been placed there out of necessity, rather than as an addition to the narrative. As I said earlier, it really is all just surface level stuff.
Is it just good? Yes. Is it worth going to the cinema for? Maybe. Should you wait till it comes out on a streaming site? Yeah, probably. In the genre of crime biopic, or biopic itself, it comes nowhere near the calibre of its predecessors. But it’s fun, entertaining, and if you love Tom Cruise in various states of danger flying a plane, then this is the movie for you.
• Cross Creek Pictures
• Imagine Entertainment
• Quadrant Pictures
• Vendian Entertainment
• Universal Pictures
Review by Emily Harrison
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