Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a biopic about Jordan Belfort, played to the extreme by longtime Scorsese collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio, a Wall Street stockbroker who — oh wait wrong movie. The actual film in question for this review is “American Made,” a Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity,” “Edge of Tomorrow”) biopic that features Tom Cruise doing his best to not play Tom Cruise — and excelling! He portrays Barry Seal, the airplane pilot who, in the late 70’s and throughout the 80’s, was involved in drug trafficking for the Medellin Cartel.
It’s not often that casting Cruise as a lead feels like the best approach, yet “American Made” makes great use out of the super star. The beginning minutes take us through his routine as Trans World Airlines pilot, a mundanity captured in montages that will stylize the film throughout. When exposed for his cigar smuggling habit by suspicious CIA agent Monty Schafer (Domnhall Gleeson, incredible as always), his opportunism reveals itself. In between lying to his wife about quitting his safe, secure job and dodging gunfire from guerilla warfighter turrets, the flyboy’s southern charm befits Cruise. Things get more precarious when the Medellin Cartel enter the stage, as if being a tool of the CIA wasn’t enough for the small time country boy. But Seal, always the go-getter, finds ways to please both camps. Between the CIA cronies in their sterile office space and Pablo Escobar’s goons, he’s an easy candidate to root for.
Supporting cast includes Sarah Wright as Seal’s wife, Lucy, Caleb Landry Jones as Lucy’s brother, JB and Mauricio Mejia as Pablo Escobar. The sparse time spent with Cruise’s on-screen lover who could be mistaken for his daughter characterize her about as flatly as expected: She’s a mother who appreciates the money her man makes doing shady stuff, living lavishly as a result. Nothing more, nothing less, a silhouette of a character only utilized for the bare necessities that progress the film’s plot. Jones continues to play type, but his discomforting sleaze is an art in and of itself so it’s hardly a problem. Slimy and stupid, his Confederate flag-toting redneck character is a time bomb. Similarly, Mejia is a joy to watch. Escobar is a paranoid businessman whose every encounter with Seal feels like it could potentially be his last, but there’s also endearing moments to be chummy with Seal.
The comedy, much like in Scorsese’s exuberant “The Wolf of Wall Street,” comes largely at the expense of the film’s inherent wild nature. But unlike its companion piece, “American Made’s” comedic timing is more on point, its laughs pouring in less frequently but to stronger effects. At its heart, “American Made” is a dark crime comedy with most of its humor respectfully crafted and subtle. It’s funnier to look back and question Seal’s suspect reliability as the film’s sole narrator via VHS tape and appreciate cinematographer Cesar Charlone’s generous use of a handheld zoom than it is to see Seal struggle to directly communicate with Spanish-speaking drug lords or being the target of a trifecta of law enforcement agencies. Those scenes are great, some hilarious, but it’s a smarter film that earns its laughs.
Strikingly, the film develops its own sense of style courtesy of its cinematography. Charlone’s handheld work not only aids in the aforementioned gags but frames its subject — Seal or otherwise — remarkably well. Of particular note is the color grading, an attention to detail that paints every setting in a unique way. The constant change of scenery between the gorgeous nature of Seal’s new home in Mena, Arkansas to the golden tint of Panama and others help provide the images with a consistent freshness.
On the whole, the film takes obvious artistic liberties to weave a more interesting film than the reality of its source material. Part of the fun in watching the film is interrogating its protagonist’s sincerity, questioning Seal’s role as unreliable narrator. Beyond the veil of Seal’s over-the-top account, it’s a subtle critique on the falsehood of the American dream by any means necessary, without pandering to extrapolate on its moral stance. Instead, it opts to tell the narrative with the most thrills.
Verdict: “American Made” refreshingly sees Tom Cruise as the highlight of a film, its success owing largely to his abilities. Its narrative following drug trafficker Barry Seal is exciting and, despite its shortcomings in some of its flat writing, manages to pace itself without lulling. It helps that the visuals are fresh and engaging, too.