Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Zaki's Review: American Made

The past several months haven't been great ones for the brand that is "Tom Cruise: Movie Star." With the critical and box office shellacking endured by Universal's franchise flameout The Mummy last spring -- despite Cruise's face and name given even more prominence in the marketing than the titular monster -- plus the the less-than-spectacular reception accorded his Jack Reacher sequel last year, it's easy to think that the Mission: Impossible Maverick's once-impeccable ability to pick just the right projects to play to his superstar strengths had begun to fail him.

And y'know, maybe the immutable passage of time and the exigencies of audience interest have pushed us past the point where the mere presence of Cruise's all-caps name in front of a title could turn any movie into a must-see event. But hey, thirty-plus years as one of the most remarkably consistent draws in the world is no small feat. And while he's still a bona fide star, if we're at the point in his career where he's more likely to set aside his action hero image and choose "for love of the game" projects like American Made, than that's not a bad place to be either -- for him as an actor and for us in the audience.

Helmed by Doug Liman, who previously directed Cruise's underrated 2014 sci-fi flick Edge of Tomorrow (not to be confused with Cruise's not-underrated 2013 sci-fi flick Oblivion), American Made takes inspiration from the real life escapades of TWA pilot-turned-CIA operative-turned-drug trafficker Barry Seal. But while it proudly bills itself as being "based on true events," it's more farcical than factual, using the very broad outlines of Seal's story to paint a rags-to-riches-to-rags story of overarching ambition and crippling greed that plays out against the backdrop of 1970s/'80s American geopolitics and comments on the foreign policy fails of that era.

As written by Gary Spinelli, American Made constructs an image of Seal that's pretty far removed from the historical figure (for one thing, the real life guy looked about as much like Tom Cruise as I do), but which is nonetheless a perfect showcase for the star, neatly leveraging his screen persona in a way that both plays to and against audience expectations in equal measure. After a montage depicting the day-to-day drudgery of his life as an airline pilot which leaves him tired and distant from wife Lucy (Sarah Wright), Seal meets CIA handler Schafer (Domnhal Gleeson), who enlists him to take spy pictures of Communist encampments in Central America.

Seal proves adept at this task, gets more assignments and takes bigger risks. Eventually coming to the attention of drug kingpins Jorge Ochoa and Pablo Escobar (founders of what will eventually become the Medellin cartel), Seal is recruited to deliver contraband to the States using the state-of-the-art single-engine plane helpfully provided by the CIA. It's all diamond bracelets and cash-filled suitcases initially and mid-air lovemaking (with his wife, natch) initially, but if you've been watching movies for awhile you know it's only a matter of time until the empire Barry builds for himself and his family in rural Arkansas will come crashing down.

To say this is "fact-based" is being especially generous, so it might be helpful to put any notions of similitude to actual events aside. What Liman does so smoothly here is to lean into the heightened reality he plied in previous projects like 1999's Go to juxtapose Seal's escapades (exaggerated as they are for comedic effect) with the CIA's actions in Central America during the "Me" decade (not exaggerated at all, but comical all the same). Via Gleeson's composite character, Liman offers a grim assessment of the multi-tendril strategy that led into and out of such blunders as Iran-Contra.

(When infamous Iran-Contra figure Ollie North shows up, played by Robert Farrior, someone in my audience excitedly whisper-shouted "Oliver North!" Not sure why I mention that, but I found it amusing.)

With its predictable rise-fall arc, American Made follows the broad outlines of a tale that feels as familiar as the medium itself. But it spins its tale in a way that feels new and interesting, and with something relevant to say. Cruise is able to make us like an irredeemable character without ever putting us on his side or making us complicit in his wrongdoing. That's a tough trick to pull off, and I doubt it would be as effective for anyone other than Cruise. As he find himself gradually aging out of his traditional leading man roles, there's a whole new territory opening up for character-rich parts such as this, and I really hope we'll get to see more of it from him. B+

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