Culture

Film & Television

Risky business

By Harry Windsor
‘American Made’ provides more subversive smarts than you’d expect from a Tom Cruise vehicle

Born on the Fourth of July, Jerry Maguire, Magnolia, Minority Report, Collateral. For a modern movie star, Tom Cruise has made an uncommon number of good films. The disconnect between those two things might seem counterintuitive until you consider the male star generally considered the biggest in the world right now: Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock. His career has been built on a personal brand of invincible affability and a franchise strategy identical to that of the studios’, from Fast Five to Baywatch to the upcoming Jumanji reboot.

Over the past dozen years, Cruise has adopted a similar game plan. As critic Amy Nicholson has argued, he’s played it safe partly in response to the public-image crisis that waylaid his career a decade ago. He’s clung to old franchises like Mission: Impossible and has attempted to kickstart new ones (Jack Reacher, The Mummy), in addition to fronting up for high-concept fare such as Oblivion and Edge of Tomorrow. The last was directed by Doug Liman, with whom Cruise has now reunited on American Made, the best thing he’s done in years.

Cruise is Barry Seal, a real-life figure glimpsed briefly in Netflix’s Narcos who was a pilot for the CIA running guns to the Contras, and for the Colombian cartel running drugs back into the United States. Seal and his story have all the outlandish ingredients for the kind of true-crime caper, with extravagant hair and period-specific credits typography, that’s very much in vogue.

American Made opens with the Universal logo match-cutting to a retro one, and the first thing that strikes you is just how distinctive the film looks, especially when compared to the flat, generically lit studio products that Cruise has been churning out. City of God cinematographer César Charlone’s often-handheld camerawork has all the nervous energy of Seal himself, zooming in abruptly, pinballing between actors with dizzying speed and ignoring the three-quarter rule to position them at the edge of the frame.

That jagged energy is also evident in the film’s structure, which doubles back on itself and frequently switches between timelines as well as video formats. Seal narrates his own story from a motel room via self-made VHS recordings, while Liman cycles through the former TWA pilot’s life story, from Louisiana to the nondescript town of Mena, Arkansas, which became Seal’s base of operations for regular trips to Panama, Nicaragua and Columbia.

With business booming he eventually enlists four other pilots, and the amount of money flowing through Mena soon attracts the attention of more than one federal agency. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) even tries to pull the smugglers over in mid flight, but the feds are snookered by the limited fuel capacity of their hi-tech jet: Seal and his cohorts simply throttle down and wait them out. This sequence ends with the kind of detail that makes Gary Spinelli’s script such a spry pleasure, despite all the familiar montages. Once the DEA peels off, Seal gives the order to head home, but one of his planes keeps powering along in a straight line: the pilot, a beer-swilling surfer played by Jayson Warner Smith, has dozed off.

American Made’s laughs are affectionate when it comes to Cruise and co., and less so when skewering the US government’s heedlessly experimental foreign policy, not to mention its sheer incompetence. The film’s focus on farcical mismanagement makes this period piece the most plugged-in – subversive, even – Cruise film in a long time, despite it being every inch the star vehicle, right down to the obligatory shirtless scene.

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.

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