Movie Review: Top Gun Meets The Wolf of Wall Street in ‘American Made’

Movie Review: Top Gun Meets The Wolf of Wall Street in ‘American Made’

Tom Cruise is infamous drug smuggler and DEA informant Barry Seal in American Made, a breezily fun (and often quite funny) take on a too-crazy-to-be-true story that never takes itself seriously enough to really hit home.

That’s what separates it from something like The Wolf of Wall Street, a movie it in many ways resembles. The Scorsese movie had a dark satiric bite that lured us into its world of money, sex, and drugs but ultimately forced us to hate Jordan Belfort and everything he represented; here, we get a lot of the flash and fun with little concern for the eventual ramifications.

Part of that is in the casting of Tom Cruise, not in action-hero movie star mode but still innately charismatic; his Seal is a bumbling opportunist who throws himself into a world of danger with wild abandon and an ear-to-ear smile. It’s tough to dislike the guy, despite everything he represents, and the film never asks us to, anyway.

“Based on a true lie”, the film’s film’s promotional material boasts, a fitting tagline to this too-good-to-be-true story. While Seal was indeed a drug smuggler for the Medellín Cartel who eventually became a DEA informant to avoid a lengthy prison sentence, American Made suggests he was working for the CIA the whole time.

Tired of flying commercial flights - where he induces turbulence just for the fun of it - Cruise’s Seal jumps at the chance to do some shady work for the US government in South and Central America when approached by mysterious CIA handler Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson).

That work involves surveillance photos from a specially-equipped plane, and eventually leads to arming the Contras in Nicaragua, and flying them back to Arkansas for training.

Along the way, Seal is also recruited by Jorge Ochoa and Pablo Escobar to run drugs to Miami. With the same energy he brought to his work with the CIA, Barry leaps at the opportunity to make some serious cash - and even devises a foolproof method of transport hundreds of kilos of cocaine into the swamps of Louisiana while avoiding detection.

Seal’s adventures don’t end there, and continue with threats both in Latin America and at his sprawling home base in Mena, Arkansas. Sarah Wright (21 years Cruise’s junior) stars as Seal’s put-upon wife and mother of his children, and Caleb Landry Jones is her no-goodnik brother, who seeks out trouble as Seal attempts to avoid it.

Directed by Doug Liman (who also helmed the excellent Cruise vehicle Edge of Tomorrow) from a script by Gary Spinelli, loosely adapted from the Shaun Attwood book American Made: Who Killed Barry Seal? Pablo Escobar or George H.W. Bush, American Made is light and lively and never stops long enough for the viewer to get too concerned with historical accuracy. It’s a fully entertaining watch, even if it leaves one feeling unfulfilled in retrospect.

One real plus here is the number of well-produced aviation scenes, something that even large-scale blockbusters fail to authentically replicate. The flying scenes look Top Gun great, and while there’s no real action in the air, great expense was paid in getting the aviation scenes right (despite few special effects or action scenes, the film comes in at a budget of $80 million).

Watch out for a terrific little scene with a young, unidentified George W. Bush. 

There is, perhaps, still room for a gritty Narcos-like take on the Barry Seal story (indeed, Seal was briefly seen in the Netflix series), and there’s always a market for a freewheelin’ fun Tom Cruise vehicle, lest his recent role in The Mummy diminish his star appeal.

But American Made, as fun as it frequently is, exists uneasily somewhere in the middle of of that spectrum, and doesn’t fully satisfy on either account. This is a breezy film that represents a good time at the cinema, and little else.

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