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American Made

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Sep 27, 2017
Tom Cruise stars in 'American Made'
Tom Cruise stars in 'American Made'  

Doug Liman, who directed the action thrillers "Edge of Tomorrow" and "The Bourne Identity," and who also helmed the action-comedy romp "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," successfully blends genres with "American Made," which stars his "Edge of Tomorrow" star Tom Cruise.

Cruise plays Barry Seal, a historical figure who became embroiled in covert operations aimed at curbing the threat of communism in Central and South America and, from there, became associated with drug cartels. Like the slightly clueless protagonists of similarly "based on true events" movies like "War Dogs" and "Gold," the movie version of Seal is decent enough, if a little gullible, and he ends up chasing big dreams, briefly tasting a life of dizzying wealth, and then seeing everything spin out of his grasp. Even so, what an adventure: As Seal giddily tells a video camera in between bouts of extended flashbacks, this is a great country precisely because such rare and strange, if dangerous opportunities are possible.

The story starts in the 1970s, a time of oil shortages and a well-meaning pep talk from the Carter administration. Led into the labyrinthine perils of international spying by a CIA operative named Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), Seal gives up his job as a TWA pilot (where he cut his teeth in the smuggling trade, bringing Cuban cigars into the U.S. and selling them for a tidy profit) and begins flying missions over communist strongholds, snapping photos as he buzzes armed encampments. Schafer sees the possibility for other covert activities and starts using Seal to deliver cash to Panamanian strongman Noriega, in exchange for intel.

But others also sense opportunity in Seal's frequent flyer activities. His flights are super-secret, but even so, the nascent Medellin Cartel has no trouble putting the piece together; they approach Seal with an irresistible offer to haul their wares back to the States on his return trips. Meantime, Schafer, too, has an idea for smuggling: He tasks Seal with the shipment of crates and crates of Russian-made weapons with which to arm the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua. It's only a matter of time and market forces before those weapons are diverted into the hands of the drug cartel.

Meantime, despite a misadventure that lands Seal in a Colombian jail and alerts the CIA as to his drug running, Schafer sets Seal up with a parcel of land in Alabama, complete with his own private airport -- a handy base of operations from which to expand his various business interests. Money comes cascading in, and so does trouble, the latter in the form of Seal's shiftless, lazy, and quite stupid brother-in-law, JB (Caleb Landry Jones).

Tom Cruise is firing on all cylinders in this film. Greed, charm, and inventiveness define his portrayal of Seal, along with a good-natured ability to deal with the various challenges his increasingly complex life presents. Sarah Wright plays Lucy, his strong-willed and loving wife; the chemistry between the two is terrific, even if the movie relegates Seal's domestic life to subplot status. Lima comedic instincts kick in at all the right moments, giving the story's built-in absurdities and excesses some extra loft and helping lubricate an absolutely over-the-top third act in which all the rot and corruption the CIA has overlooked snowballs into something history would later record as the Iran-Contra Affair. (Enter Robert Farrior, as Col. Oliver North, a picaresque hero in his own right who will, hopefully, one day have a movie like this of his own.)

There are plenty of moments of high absurdity in "American Made," and more than a few plot points that will leave one skeptical, such as Seal making good his escape from a pair of law enforcement aircraft by crash-landing his plane on a suburban street and then, covered in cocaine powder and trailing a comet's tail of white, zipping away to safety on a child's bicycle. Really? And yet, though strained, one's suspension of disbelief holds fast: That was the 1980s, after all, and a time when daring scoundrels could outwit and outflank the authorities.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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