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American Made Review

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

American Made poster

Has Tom Cruise been watching a lot of Warren Beatty movies lately?

In "American Made," a zigzagging, heavily fictionalized account of a TWA pilot turned drugs and arms smuggler Barry Seal, the movie star does a lot of his own flying, and executes some stunts that belie his 55 years. But on the ground, the actor takes his sweet, smiling time with every rejoinder in every dialogue sequence, the way Beatty does, pausing before answering the latest question, registering disbelief through high-gloss teeth. Cut the pauses out, rewrite the ending, and "American Made" becomes a one-hour series pilot. As is, at two hours, it's fairly entertaining even when it doesn't quite work, directed for maximum pace by Cruise's "Edge of Tomorrow" cohort, director Doug Liman.

"Edge of Tomorrow," which I really liked, featured giant killer bugs from another planet, yet "American Made" is somehow the less realistic story of the two. To his credit, Cruise has worked out a few tics and performance details (including a light, occasional Baton Rouge drawl) in portraying a classic American weasel who thinks he's a hero.

The real Barry Seal's bizarre career is enough for five seasons on Netflix. He was busted for smuggling explosives into Mexico, intended for anti-Castro Cubans, in the early 1960s. Though some sources deny he was ever on the CIA payroll, most accounts put Seal in the employ of the U.S. intelligence agency, flying a private plane into Central American countries and taking surveillance photos of America's enemies. Then Seal got rich flying cocaine and marijuana back to the states on behalf of the future members of the Medellin cartel. Seal ran an increasingly sprawling and lucrative private airport in Mena, Ark., eventually turning snitch on behalf of the Drug Enforcement Agency and being outed as a CIA op by the news media.

Gary Spinelli's script revises and deletes those and other resume items at will, while hustling to avoid tedium and confusion. The movie begins in 1978, with Cruise's Barry bored out of his skull doing regional hops for TWA. ("American Made" makes no room or time for some of the wilder assertions regarding Seal's entanglements prior to the film's timeline, such as the murky theory that Seal flew a getaway plane for JFK's assassins on Nov. 22, 1963.) In the movie Domhnall Gleeson plays a composite figure, Seal's grinning, upbeat CIA liaison. The film scoots back and forth from Baton Rouge to Latin America, from Mena, Ark., to various Central American locales all played by Colombia.

"All this is legal?" Cruise asks Gleeson at one point. Sure, he answers, "if you're doing it for the good guys." It's the line you hear in every Hollywood treatment of a story involving morally compromised American cocaine and/or arms dealers, trying to extend their geopolitical lucky streak. "American Made" is a better, more intriguingly conflicted project than (a generation ago) "Air America" with Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. as heroin smugglers in the Vietnam War. And there's little of the tonal confusion that clobbered the recent "War Dogs." (Miles Teller and Jonah Hill as wacky Yanks dealing arms in the thick of the Iraq invasion.) As Seal's domestic life back in Arkansas becomes one of crazy, conspicuous excess, we wait for the house of cards to tumble. Spinelli clearly is crazy about Scorsese's "GoodFellas," and he has structured "American Made" in roughly the same picaresque fashion.

Director Liman's handling of Cruise's final scene is visually striking and properly stark. The movie doesn't quite do its job setting up that ending, however. Much of "American Made" plays like a compressed and streamlined version of whatever screenwriter Spinelli came up with initially. Seal bumps into one historical figure after another -- Panamanian dictator and CIA informant Manuel Noriega, Iran/Contra strategist Oliver North, even a cameo from someone playing George W. Bush -- in the years covered here, 1978-1986. They become a colorful, reckless blur, and often that blur is entertaining, as photographed in hot, bright, amped-up colors by cinematographer Cesar Charlone. (Liman's relentless long-lens hand-held technique, though, is less helpful.)

The real Seal, it seems, was a more ambitious, wide-ranging criminal than he's depicted in "American Made." Then again, nobody should go to any "based on a true story" affair for facts. It's hard enough to get the right sort of dramatically convincing lies.

MPAA rating: R (for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity).

Running time: 1:55

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