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Movie Review: #AmericanMade

Tom Cruise is at his best in American Made. And he never throws a punch.

Review by Matt Cummings

If many elements behind the biopic American Made feel way too familiar (title cards at the end, news footage, doctored photos showing our hero rubbing elbows), you might also find yourself doing the unthinkable: forgiving Director Doug Liman and Actor Tom Cruise. This is easily one of the best biopic films of the year, fueled by an all-out performance by Cruise, bolstered by a highly stylized feel, and filled with just enough levity to offset what soon becomes a very nasty and gripping affair.

Starting in the late 1970's, American Made follows the story of former TWA pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) who decides the drudgery of commercial airlines is less appealing that he imagined, especially when he's courted by the CIA agent Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) to take low-flying pictures of South American drug lords. Initially very successful, Seal is also recruited by the up-and-coming Medellin cartel, who want him to ship drugs back to America. After he's denied a raise by Schafer, Seal signs on and witnesses a massive transformation in his wealth. He brings so much cash home that he can't bury enough of it. Even after a series of arrests, Seal continues to move up the food chain, even though his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) is concerned about the price he might ultimately pay. And when that bill arrives, Barry must find a way to protect his family, keep the CIA off his back, trick the Medellins into taking several high-profile pictures, and wash all the cash he's bringing home for his efforts.

Although American Made feels a lot like other biopics of recent years, its story by Writer Gary Spinelli instantly grabs you, sending us on a wild adventure that unfolds so quickly that one might think they were ingesting some of the cocaine that Seal is running. But that frenetic style is due to Director Doug Liman, who masterfully crafts Made by using a combination of smart animation (including a very nice tribute to Schoolhouse Rock), unsteady cam and a filter which makes us think we're right back in the late 70's/early 80's. But a highly-stylized film can only go so far, and so it's here that Cruise turns in one of his best performances since Valkyrie. What makes Barry Seal's story so gripping is what Cruise brings to the screen, infusing every ounce of his considerable charisma into the role. He smiles when he should be pissing his pants, shows off his bum to Wright, and parades around like someone who clearly doesn't know what they've gotten themselves into. And Cruise enjoys every minute of it, brandishing American Made as a no-holds-barred rollercoaster moniker. You might dislike the man for his choices, but he can flat-out act.

Cruise's compatriots enjoy similar successes. Gleeson, one of Hollywood's least appreciated stars, pushes Cruise to his limits, lobbing the CIA in Seal's face as both friend and foe. When their operation wraps up and Schafer turns to leave, Barry asks him where he's going. "Schafer, who?" replies Gleeson. Wright is a relative unknown, but she instantly connects with Cruise, both as defiant mother and concerned wife. But once she's in on the scheme, she also becomes a shrewd businesswoman, intent on cashing in on Barry's success. In many ways, neither of them truly understand what's in store for Barry if the Medellin or the CIA find out about his activities. As American Made progresses and it becomes clear what has to happen, we pity the couple. That's great writing by Spinelli, and everyone involved soaks up that rich hypocricy.

American Made isn't perfect. The story really doesn't delve deeply enough into the Seal's relationship with their children, choosing instead to tell the tale of Lucy's white-trash brother (Caleb Landry Jones). That ends in a really satisfying way, but it might have been worth it to see a few moments taken to explore that dynamic. It's also not made clear why Barry would literally walk away from TWA, especially when Barry seems to truly love his family. There's never that sequence of give and take in Barry's mind that is laid out so well in Netflix's Ozark, although the way he leaves the plane on the tarmac feels like something Cruise himself would do.

Tom Cruise is at his best in American Made, mostly because he doesn't rely on huge stunts, punching, or jumping to absolutely sell his performance. He and Liman craft easily one of the best biopics of 2017, not just because of Cruise's charismatic performance but because all the familiar elements work so much better than in other contenders. Much like the cash Barry makes in the film, Cruise proves he's as much a master of the character tale as he is leaping from a building or riding alongside an airplane. That alone should be enough to get you to the theater to check out this Oscar hopeful.

American Made is rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity and has a runtime of 111 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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