American Made (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): Cruise back in his element

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Based on an absurd real-life story involved with CIA, a drug cartel, and the White House, “American Made” gives us some funny moments to savor as cheerfully flying up and down along with its sleazy opportunistic hero. Although it often feels like juggling too many things and then comes to lose some of its comic momentum during its second half, the movie is kept held together by its broad but engaging lead performance at least, and I enjoyed its zany satiric spirit despite its several weak points to notice.

The movie is about the rises and falls of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), and the opening part effectively sets the tone while showing us his life and career in 1978. As a hotshot pilot of TWA, Seal surely gets some fun and excitement as flying around here and there, but he still wants more fun while feeling bored with his repetitive work routine, and that is reflected well by when he wakes up his co-pilot with an ‘unexpected turbulence’ in the middle of their flight – or when he smuggles boxes of Cuban cigars and then gets some extra cash for that.

Shortly after that illegal act of his, Seal is approached by a CIA agent who introduces himself as Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), and he wants to use Seal’s exceptional flying skills for his covert operation in Central South America. All Seal needs to do is flying an airplane close over some communist militia camps for photographing them, and he does not hesitate to accept Schafer’s offer at all once he beholds a top-notch airplane to be given to him for the mission. While there is always the chance of being shot down during his perilous flight, he cannot refuse the thrill and excitement from that, and he even comes to quit his TWA job for working more for Schafer, who is certainly pleased as his direct superior is quite impressed by the high quality of those photographs shot from Seal’s airplane.

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Of course, Seal’s frequent flights on Central South America come to draw notices, and that is how the leaders of the Madellin cartel including Pablo Escobar approach to Seal on one day. They want to use Seal’s airplane for smuggling their drug into US, and Seal cannot resist this risky but lucrative opportunity. Once he succeeds in delivering the cartel’s drug to US, he gets paid well as promised, and Schafer does not mind this at all because he still needs Seal’s service.

The movie gets funnier as this absurd relationship among Seal, CIA, and the Madellin cartel becomes more expanded during the 1980s. For overthrowing the communist government of Nicaragua, the US government is ready to give any support to the rebel militias in that county, so Seal secretly delivers weapons to Nicaraguan rebels as instructed by Schafer, but some of those weapons are sent to the cartel during this shady delivery process. In the meantime, the cartel’s drug is safely smuggled into US via the opposite route, and Schafer keeps turning a blind eye to what is going on behind Seal’s back. As a matter of fact, he even provides Seal a big piece of land in Arkansas, where Seal can expand his aviation business.

Because the story is often intercut with the video footage scenes of Seal being mired in agitation and desperation, we already know from the start that things will eventually not go well for him, but the screenplay by Gary Spinelli bounces from one absurd moment to another as wielding several moments of black humor. Suddenly moved from their cozy home in Louisiana to a shabby house outside a small town in Arkansas, his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) and their children are not that pleased to say the least, but their new home is soon filled with lots of cash besides being considerably refurbished, and everyone is happy for that. As his aviation business is expanded further, Seal buys more planes and enlists several pilots willing to work for him, and we get an amusing moment when one of them happens to be asleep on their way back to US (Fortunately for him, his plane is on autopilot).

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As the amoral center of the movie, Tom Cruise is a lot more interesting to watch compared to his disastrously bland performance in “The Mummy” (2017). Although it has been more than 30 years since he rose to his stardom via “Risky Business” (1983) and “Top Gun” (1986), Cruise’s own star quality is not diminished at all, and it is utilized well for comic effects here in this film. Seal is not exactly a likable guy, but Cruise constantly holds our attention as his character tries to deal with troubles way over his head, and we come to enjoy his character’s bumpy ride even though we do not care a lot about him.

The movie is directed by Doug Liman, who previously collaborated with Cruise in “Edge of Tomorrow” (2014). He and his crew did a good job of establishing the authentic period atmosphere of the 1970-80s, and the soundtrack is filled with various pieces of music including “Hooked on Classics”, which is prominently used during one sequence. The cinematography by César Charlone, who was Oscar-nominated for “City of God” (2002), is also solid on the whole, and his effortless handheld camerawork brings considerable verisimilitude to the movie.

The main weak point of the movie is the under-utilization of its supporting performers, who have to fill their roles as much as they can. While Domhnall Gleeson is mostly stuck in his thankless role, Sarah Wright manages to leave some impression despite her underdeveloped character, and Jesse Plemons is totally wasted as a town sheriff who belatedly becomes suspicious about the new resident of his town. In case of Caleb Landry Jones, he is effectively pathetic as Lucy’s dopey brother, but then the movie simply uses his caricature character for cheap laughs.

On the whole, “American Made” is an entertaining film despite its flaws, so I gave it three stars, but I want to emphasize that there are better films out there. Compared to “American Hustle” (2013) and “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013), the movie is less energetic and pungent, and I think the movie could benefit from more focused and coherent storytelling. Anyway, it is nice to see Cruise back in his element, and I will not deny that I got good chuckles from that.

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