Everybody wants to be “Goodfellas.” It’s the coolest, slickest kid in school. Ever since Martin Scorsese‘s influential mobster epic first came onto the scene in 1990, many directors and producers have tried to replicate that iconic film’s free-wheeling, high-rolling style. Whether it’s “Lord Of War,” “American Hustle,” or “War Dogs,” to name a mere few, Hollywood isn’t shy about trying to recreate that smooth criminal classic’s singular success. Even Scorsese himself returned to his own well with his infectiously fun “The Wolf of Wall Street” a few years ago. That copycat trend continues with “American Made,” director Doug Liman‘s (“Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “The Bourne Identity“) fast-moving, liberally fictionalized, thoroughly entertaining, if fairly unoriginal and by-the-numbers, cinematic account of TWA pilot-turned-drug smuggler for the Medellin cartel, Barry Seal.
In the late ’70s, Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is living an unassuming life working as a commercial airline pilot. If he had visions of grandeur, he traded them for a simple life with his caring wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright). But when Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) offers Barry the chance to work with the CIA, flying clandestine reconnaissance missions over South America, it doesn’t take long for him to agree. The work is as exciting as it is dangerous, and it’s only a short matter of time before Schafer asks Barry to act as a courier between the CIA and Panama’s General Noriega. But it’s during one of these trips that Barry is picked up the Medellin cartel, they make him an even more intriguing proposition.
Thanks to his exceptional skills, the cartel wants Barry to fly cocaine on his return flights to the United States. Barry isn’t so much reluctant of the criminal aspects of the job, as much as he’s concerned about how they should be handled. The cartel wants Barry to deliver the packages between landings, but that’s how the other guys got caught. Rather than taking off and landing, Barry proposes sliding the cocaine through an empty chute mid-flight, getting the packages to the right people with much less risk on both ends. It’s not long before Barry is flying cocaine to Louisiana, and it’s also not long before he gets caught and tracked by the DEA. But the CIA steps in to help Barry, moving him to the remote town of Mena, Arkansas so he can continue conducting his illegal operations. And that’s when Barry starts getting rich. Very rich. And that’s when things start to get even crazier than before.
As with most Tom Cruise films of late, there’s a continuous loose energy throughout “American Made.” Even at 55, Cruise commits himself to a project like few other working actors in Hollywood, opting to do most of his own flying stunts and putting his body through things that even some of his younger peers would object to. But there’s a little more vulnerability in that million dollar smile in “American Made.” Perhaps the actor’s age is starting to hit him, or maybe it’s simply a little more insecurity than we’re used to from the cocky, kooky actor. In any case, there’s a mix of anxiousness and eagerness in this performance that recalls the humility and charm brought out by Liman, to very entertaining results, in “Edge of Tomorrow.” Even though “American Made” lacks the simplicity, intense focus and surprise factor of that enthralling film, Liman nevertheless crafts a thrilling and captivating picture, with attention to both character and action.
Edited by Andrew Mondshein, “American Made” is narratively bumpy, as it essentially has to condense nearly three seasons worth of “Narcos” into one two-hour film. But the flying-by-the-seat-of-his-pants attitude that defines Barry Seal’s character is communicated well despite the framework. Even when the movie copies from other films, “American Made” knows how to keep itself in control and constantly flowing. Whenever there’s turbulence, Cruise, Liman, and screenwriter Gary Spinelli are there to keep you laughing and engaged.
Faults aside, “American Made” does give us one of Cruise’s most inspired and delightfully charismatic turns quite in some time. Any sins committed by his boring, overcooked “The Mummy” this summer are forgiven. With his thick, wavering Baton Rouge accent and his wide-eyed intensity, Cruise sometimes feels like he’s doing his best Matthew McConaughey impression, and it’s a blast to watch. He might be playing characters meant for actors ten or twenty years younger, but “American Made” is, nonetheless, Cruise in his element. If this film is meant to be some kind of test run for “Top Gun 2,” perhaps there’s reason to get excited.
There’s no shortage of “Goodfellas” wannabes out there, but “American Made” is a serviceably entertaining one with consistent action and hearty chuckles along the way. If you’re going to copy from your peers, be sure to give it enough of its own personality along the way. In that sense, “American Made” is a delightful, if not substantial ride that doesn’t quite stick the landing but is still worth chartering. [B-]