Full-On Antihero: Our Review of ‘American Made’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - September 29, 2017
Full-On Antihero: Our Review of ‘American Made’

In 2014, Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman teamed up to deliver the well-received sci-fi action movie Edge of Tomorrow (or Live Die Repeat depending on who you ask). Aside from being a kick-ass film, Edge of Tomorrow is one of the biggest financial disappointments in Cruise’s career. Cruise and Liman have joined forces to give big-budget moviemaking another go. Their latest picture, American Made, seeks to recapture Edge of Tomorrow’s magic, but this time at less than half of the budget.

American Made tells the real-life story of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), a cocky pilot who is bored out of his mind with his cushy commercial airline job. Seal, who is clearly a dick, is so restless at work that he turns off autopilot and pretends to hit turbulence. After long days scaring his passengers senseless, Barry returns home too exhausted to have sex with his (much younger) wife Lucy (Sarah Wright).

Barry has a side-hustle smuggling cigars in from Canada which puts him on the CIA’s radar and a dubious agent named Schafer (Domnhall Gleeson) approaches him with a proposition. The CIA recruits Barry to fly reconnaissance missions over communist sites in Central America. Barry goes back to his hustling ways in no time, unable to resist making fast cash smuggling cocaine for the Medellín Cartel and running guns for Nicaraguan Contras. As the great American rapper Notorious B.I.G. once said, “Mo money, Mo Problems,” and Barry finds himself with the Cartel, CIA, and DEA all breathing down his neck.

Liman cut his teeth in the industry leaping from genre to genre, taking stabs at action, comedy, and drama in both TV and in film. American Made makes use of his jack of all trades skillset as it cascades from visceral Jason Bourne series shaky cam action to physical comedy bits. American Made is extremely funny for a biopic that dives into such grim subject matter. Liman transitions seamlessly between the dramatic beats and Barry’s comedic hijinks without cheapening the story’s message. Liman conveys the absurdity of Barry’s situation but doesn’t make him come off as a joke. I can’t say the same for how the film portrays government agencies.

I wouldn’t call American Made an action movie but it does have a few thrilling scenes. There’s a tense moment where Barry must get a plane carrying too much cargo off a very short runway. There’s no doubt Barry will pull it off but Liman still knows how to make viewer’s sweat it out. The camera shakes, jitters, and locks in for claustrophobic close-ups before pulling back to establish a sense of acceleration. Often times in films, planes don’t convey any sense of velocity as they appear to float across the clouds. In American Made, Liman manages to convey a feeling of exhilaration as aircrafts race through the sky; you can practically feel the crisp high-altitude wind slapping you in the face.

Cruise and Liman make a great tandem. Liman knows exactly how to modulate Cruise’s manic energy, asking him to deliver a performance that is callous but not off-putting. There’s a smug entitlement to how casually Barry breaks the law and ruins lives. Cruise provides just enough charm to keep people rooting for the morally reprehensible Barry. Unlike antiheroes in Goodfellas and Breaking Bad, American Made isn’t a rag to riches tale or even an underdog story. Barry is just a bored middle-class guy who feels entitled. After crashing his plane into a suburban neighbourhood, Barry literally tosses money at the family in the home he wrecked. It takes a special breed of actor to keep the audience in the corner of a character that pompous. Bravo Tom Cruise!

Liman and Cruise must be on the same creative wavelength because they’ve delivered their second highly enjoyable film in three years. Cruise is clearly having a blast playing a middle-class antihero and don’t be surprised if he receives an award season push. As far as rise and fall biopics go, American Made feels closer to The Wolf of Wall Street than Blow. While the gunrunning and drug trafficking source material is just as dour, American Made’s sun-kissed look, comedic bits, and kinetic editing make it a lighter overall watch.

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Victor Stiff is a Toronto-based freelance writer and pop culture curator. Victor currently contributes insights, criticisms, and reviews to several online publications where he has extended coverage to the Toronto International Film Festival, Hot Docs, Toronto After Dark, Toronto ComiCon, and Fan Expo Canada. Victor has a soft spot in his heart for Tim Burton movies and his two poorly behaved beagles (but not in that order).