AMERICAN MADE (Movie Review)

*** out of ****
Rated R
(for strong language throughout and some sexuality/nudity)
Released:  September 29, 2017
Runtime: 115 minutes
Director: Doug Liman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, Alejandro Edda
, Fredy Yate Escobar, Mauricio Mejia

A fast and loose movie about a guy who played fast and loose with the law – and The Law itself – American Made follows the (mis)adventures of Barry Seal, the pilot who ran drugs in the 1980s for the world’s largest cartel while also running covert missions for the U.S. government who had engaged in a newly minted “War on Drugs”.

The duplicity here went beyond Barry Seal. It was in our government, too, starting with Seal’s opportunistic CIA handler who saw the thriving business potential in illegal contraband. For him, Seal’s shady history was a virtue, not a liability. And for Seal, who lived for the thrill of seeing how successfully he could game both sides, he was living a mercenary’s version of the American Dream.

Compounding the corruption, Lt. Col. Oliver North and the Reagan administration saw an opportunity to use the whole operation to aid the Contras against a USSR-backed communist regime (yep, this all led to Iran/Contra, as you’d expect) but, just as you might expect American Made to track a strictly liberal bias, the story throws then-Governor Bill Clinton under the bus, too.

This whole bizarre escapade, as directed by Doug Liman (Swingers), plays out like a gonzo Big Short sort of spree, carousing in the absolute absurdity of what was being pulled off. Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow superstar Tom Cruise revels in it all, too, with a swagger that’s locked-and-loaded with a full mag of his charisma.

Filmed with gusto, spunk, and a real cinematic flair (it’s a slick whirlwind awash in lush colors, Central America especially), the first half of American Made is a high-octane romp that lacks a necessary undercurrent of unease, or a satirical gravity that the subject requires. The frivolity – as entertaining as it is – only goes so far.

Inevitably, though, it all starts to unravel, and the movie gets better when it does. Stakes are raised, tension mounts, and legitimate consequences emerge – from legal jeopardy to life-and-death peril – as things spiral out in ways you can’t expect. This weightier second act starts to match Liman’s fluid and assured kinetic style, more suitably self-aware than David O. Russell’s recent batch of self-important Oscar baits (American Hustle, et al).

For as criminal as these events were, it’s hard to be as shocked as we once might have been. Politically speaking, we’re hard-wired for cynicism right now. Astutely, Liman doesn’t strain for shock value, instead choosing to keep this telling squarely in the lane of being a wild ride and, for Cruise, an actor’s showcase (even if his Southern accent is never really credible).

Still, that larger-than-life esprit ends up serving as its own indictment, and the sudden, final sobering moment packs a truly powerful punch. American Made may not have the moral reckoning that a Scorsese-in-his-prime might have reached, but there’s something to be said for Liman respecting his audience enough to know we’ll get the point anyway.

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