Other than Tom Cruise, what else is American made? Kentucky Fried Chicken, Cadillacs, pool parties, and many different grades of ammunition. Some things can ship internationally with the appropriate paperwork and a casual, non-committal nod to Fred at border crossing. But some things require the expertise of a person who only says “yes” and isn’t smart enough to ask questions. According to the government, not everything can go through the appropriate, Fred-approved channels. Regardless, product still needs to move. Coincidentally, if you ask the Colombian cartel, they’ll say the exact same thing. Double dealing can make a person very rich so long as they keep their head down and their profits deep underground in the backyard.
As a commercial pilot, Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is wading through life feeling pretty average. He has a house, a beautiful wife, and a little smuggling gig on the side, but there is no real excitement. That problem finds a solution the minute CIA Agent Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) catches onto Barry’s loose dealings. Rather than arrest him for smuggling, Schafer recruits Barry to take pictures of communist camps in Central America. Barry says, “Can I keep the plane?” and the deal is made. The job may not pay much, but it does open doors. Barry’s flybys don’t go unnoticed and the Colombian cartel sees an opportunity to use the friendly American’s in-and-out privileges. At the price of $2,000 per kilogram of smuggled cocaine, Barry says, “You’ll pay me how much?” and the deal is made. Flying south to take pictures and dropping off drugs on the way back north, Barry starts to make quite the healthy living. When the U.S. government feels they have enough snapshots, however, they set Barry on a new mission to deliver guns to Nicaragua revolutionaries. Barry says, “Do I start Monday?” and the new deal is done. A smart pilot would ask a question or two, but in Barry’s world a little silence brings a mighty fine problem: where to stash all his money.
American Made is a flag-waving, land-loving, fireworks in the afternoon kind of film. Some stud in aviator glasses gets mixed up in international “business” that is none of his business but, being an independent contractor, he makes a whack of money to support his wife’s lavish lifestyle and a refurbishment of the local baseball pitch. Where are the spangled eagles? All American Made needs is more Uncle Sam and a Sunday BBQ. On top of that, Tom Cruise is returning to his aviation roots and adds a young blonde to play The Wife. The only thing that doesn’t fit the mold is that Cruise never holds a weapon – or jumps from a 50-storey building. He flies some pretty snazzy planes and wears some pretty tight pants, but the action star is more of a protagonist by accident than a secret agent. Apparently, jumping head-first is the perfect solution for the average middle-class family just scraping by.
Aside from the alluring line that American Made is based on a real story, the whole movie feels like another drug-lord adventure – minus a little jungle and a tiger or two. Barry breaks the law, gets filthy rich, is shot at, laughs with his employers, and quakes in his Italian leather boots when the loose-end brother-in-law comes for a visit. We’ve seen most of this before and, contrary to the number of bank accounts opened from start to finish, in the end it never goes the drug-dealer’s way. Some middle-aged representative of the Justice Department always waves a piece of paper in the air and tears the whole establishment down. Still, it’s entertaining to watch the clueless nobody burn very brightly for an hour and a half before getting slapped in the face by the criminal code. Whether justice is delivered by the American legal system or a more Hollywood-Colombian send off, we the viewers don’t seem to mind.
Most of this plot is, actually, pretty entertaining, even if we have seen it (minus the planes) before. There are a few awkward drug raids and more than enough Spanish-shouters gesturing over a kneeling and bewildered Barry. Our hero’s ability to get himself out of and around sticky situations is bewildering comedy; but the rest feels very similar to The Wolf of Wall Street. This guy falls into a ridiculous, mostly illegal salary and keeps it rolling for a decade. Even when his employers discover that he’s been double-dipping, they try to use Barry’s position to their advantage and pay him even more. Barry has so much cash it knocks him out every time he opens a closet door. He’s not a hero we’re meant to like, although it’s easy to flinch every time Barry turns an engine key and the vehicle doesn’t blow up.
American Made is a flashy movie with a ridiculous story that only works because it’s based on true events – and because it’s Tom Cruise. The camera work feels amateur, whizzing back and forth between speakers and shooting out of focus and far too closely. I feel like the hand-helds are meant to match Barry’s spontaneous lifestyle, but instead the camera stumbles around like a blindfolded kid in an obstacle race. American Made is another suitcase-to-riches-to-motel story based on the American dream that feels a little repetitive. It’s a 6/10 because the aerial shots were nice to look at and I laughed when Cruise made his escape, covered in a layer of cocaine, through suburbia on a kid’s bicycle.