Early on in American Made Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), an AOM pilot, is approached by the CIA and asked to fly over Central American militia strongholds to snap reconnaissance photos. After accepting the job Barry is similarly approached by the Columbian Medellín Cartel, while south of the boarder, and offered a cocaine smuggling position using his CIA plane on his return flights to the USA. This juggling of agency and cartel tasks could itself easily serve as the backbone to a thrilling drug running biopic, but in Doug Liman’s American Made this is just the first once of fun. Imagine every type of cross boarder smuggling film you’ve ever seen. Now weave those all together into wicker basket of shady covert CIA operations and downright illegal drug and arms running, and you’ll begin to have some semblance of what’s going on in American Made.
The film starts off rather generically laying the groundwork with several back-to-back cookie cutter moments, many that you’ve seen in every movie like this one. We open with a scene of Barry routinely piloting a commercial flight until he flips off the autopilot and takes a few steep dips to the horror of the passengers on board. Barry is a thrill seeker, check. Shortly after this Barry walks into a hotel bar and exchanges a bag of illegal Cuban cigars for an envelope of money. Barry is a risk taker, check. Following the hand off a conspicuous man, Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), confronts Barry about the exchange and offers him a job. Barry gets involved with the CIA, check. Although the rapid pace and overall directness that American Made opens up with induces no shortage of internal (or external) groans, it soon becomes apparent that the narrative must move along like this in order to make time for the shovel loads of plot still to be heaped on. After a little while Seal has his fingers in so many cartel operations and CIA conspiracies that it’s hard to keep up with how this wild juggling act is all fitting together.
As in all drug running movies that glorify, at least for a time, the exploits of these cross boarder bandits, Barry garners more money than he soon knows what to do with and subsequently starts living the life he’s always dreamed of, free to buy or do whatever he wants as the term cost no longer carries meaning for him. The irony is that Barry is not actually a free man in the slightest, owned at home by the CIA and the Cartel in Central America. Working simultaneously for both organizations carries several obvious dangers for Barry, however, rather than being faced with any mortal threat when conflict inevitably brews up between himself and either party, he is instead given more tasks to accomplish. These accumulate until his life becomes a tangled web of bribery and illegal drug, gun and soldier transportation, culminating in a precarious jigsaw puzzle threatening to fall apart with each new piece added.
Cruise plays Seal perfectly as the street smart but headstrong middle aged pilot looking for some adventure. The wild charismatic energy that he brings to the screen works hand in hand with the euphoric intensification of his character’s situation. In fact, contrary to his surroundings, Barry’s composure remains rather even as things around him start to get heated. Perhaps the most unique aspect of American Made, in comparison to other offerings in this genre, is that there’s no point where paranoia really kicks in as Barry begins to feel heat is felt around the corner. And even when things start to come crashing down, this shouldn’t come as any spoiler, Barry takes it all in stride like some cocky genius who knows exactly what is going to happen next, despite the fact that this is often not the case at all and really he’s just getting pulled in another direction of questionable directives.
American Made ends up being very much more than the sum of its parts. The individual building blocks of the movie aren’t anything you haven’t seen before, but when they’re all neatly packed together they make for one heck of an entertaining jumble.
Universal Pictures releases American Made in theatres on Friday, Sept 29, 2017