FILM REVIEW: "American Made" Only Gives Cursory Nods to the Humour In American Bullshit
American Made subsists on the fumes of jaunty cynicism and glibness despite its potential as something greater: a searing, dark comedy. Its title is perhaps the cleverest and most honest thing about it, implying a kind of sleek superficiality which permeates this film.
It's a story of amoral greed and incompetence that only proves to be fitfully funny and outrageous thanks to the actually funny and outrageous real-life story it's based on, a story that juggles shady CIA-arms deals, Columbian drug smuggling, and rags-to-riches.
But even as director Doug Liman (the mind behind The Bourne Identity, here re-teaming with Tom Cruise after the unexpectedly enjoyable The Edge of Tomorrow) impressively flexes his filmmaking muscles, often drenching the frame in scorching Central American sunshine when not honing in on sweaty, expressive faces – not to mention powering the smuggling sequences with superb sound design and striking cinematography – American Made is toothless; toothless because there's too much damn smirking going on. It oozes sleaze and smarm, as if to compensate for the fact that it's a meek, by-the-numbers biopic: rise, fall, credits.
Let's be unfair for a moment and compare American Made to a couple of all-time classics. It lacks The Wolf of Wall Street's ingenuity – specifically its perfect last-second blistering of its audience who were there for the vicarious thrill of screwing bimbos, doing coke, and Getting Away With it All. And it doesn't commit to Burn After Reading's black hearted, nihilistic humour. These two films which were clearly a vague spiritual template for American Made.
Tom Cruise once again dons his well-worn on-screen persona with the effortlessness of Clark Kent donning the tights and cape. The on-screen persona is of course the avatar of immortal boyish machismo. Thankfully it's far less embarrassing here than it was as his turn as a Made-in-Taiwan version of a Marvel superhero in The Mummy, where Russell Crowe shattered Cruise's particular movie-star illusion by un-ironically referring to the 53 year old star as a “young man”. Here he plays ace-pilot Barry Glean, a family man recruited by a CIA agent (an appropriately weasel-y Domhall Gleason) to stealthily provide reconnaissance on the communist uprisings in Central America. Happy to accept, he proves adept at that job, and soon finds himself running drugs for the Medellin Cartel, a move which nearly ruined the Ronald Reagan White House through sheer embarrassment alone, revealing the putrid hypocrisy of his presidency (the film reminds us that the Reagan presidency started the 'Just say no' anti drug campaign).
It's ultimately impossible to know what Barry Glean was like in real-life because Tom Cruise plays him as Tom Cruise with a southern drawl. He cockily swaggers through incident after incident, blissfully unaware that he was destined to be a major historical player in the Iran-Contra affair. He's a two dimensional figure, slurping expensive tequila with gangsters in between smuggling; a guileless cowboy. His only dilemma for most of this is that he has more cash money than he knows what to do with. But then, this vaguely insulting description doesn't derail the movie. Because it's not going for serious journalism cinema a la Zero Dark Thirty; it's a romp playing fast and loose with the facts – not too different from what you'd imagine a Tom Cruise thriller/comedy to be, really. In this way American Made occasionally amuses and provokes a hearty guffaw or two by its end. As a biopic it's insubstantial, but as a Tom Cruise vehicle it's alright..