AMERICAN MADE: A Pale & Painfully Average Imitation
Laying blame is a difficult one because nothing is particularly awful in American Made: even the screenplay peppers a handful of decent set pieces and sequences throughout - but there's nobody on-hand to elevate the picture.
Tom Cruise’s inability to make a decent film continues, with yet another painfully-average-bordering-on-dull film out for release. American Made follows on from Cruise’s other whiff last summer, The Mummy, and last November’s Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, a downward spiral briefly interrupted by the impressive Edge of Tomorrow in 2014.
Doug Liman – who also directed that sci-fi time loop thriller – brings the real-life story of former TWA pilot Barry Seal to our screens – and despite the colourful life Seal led, Liman can’t quite capture the spark in cinematic form, leading to a muted, just-about passable film
American Made begins documenting Barry Seal’s life as a pilot for a commercial airline in the late 1970s. When a CIA agent, Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) approaches him to fly clandestine reconnaissance missions for the CIA over South America, he accepts. It leads him to a life as a courier, smuggling drugs and guns between continents for various organisations – forcing the CIA to turn a blind eye to his rogue activities – a risk for which he is rewarded handsomely for financially. But, with multiple law enforcement agencies and drug-trafficking rings after him, how long can he keep them at bay?
All so average
It’s difficult to know where to begin reviewing American Made, because each element inspires a similar reaction: it’s all so average. That’s arguably more offensive – and certainly more difficult to discuss – than an outright terrible film, because it makes placing your thoughts into words all the more challenging, for a lack of extremes available to you as a writer. It might sound like an annoying grumble to have, but your middle-of-the-road, pedestrian cinematic servings are a pain in the ass to review.
Barry Seal’s unbelievable life, even with the artistic liberties it is so quick to announce it has taken, doesn’t make the screen translation effectively enough to be recommended. Its uninspired hash of tones ultimately provides a detriment to the film’s own identity. It so desperately wants to evoke The Wolf of Wall Street but ends up closer in relation to the utterly insufferable Gold and dreadful (in my eyes, probably only) The Big Short.
As a matter of fact, this limp biopic proved something to me: my least favourite genre in the world is ‘irritating American men doing illegal and morally questionable things for fame and/or fortune’. With the Leonardo DiCaprio-starring Wall Street the only exception, I am almost always guaranteed to hate anything indulging in this horrendous glamorisation of horrible people.
Tom Cruise is obviously having fun in the main role, and is one of the stronger elements of American Made. He certainly tackles the intriguing man at the centre of the story with some commitment and energy, and it’s quite admirable. Shame that energy isn’t felt by the audience. For all his poor choices in the projects he decides to undertake, you have to give it to him for at least putting some effort into his roles, and he does play the slimy Seal with ease and fidelity.
Sarah Wright’s performance as Seal’s wife, Lucy, is admirably ditzy and very often charming, delivering some funny one-liners and again, energy – but the problem is there is absolutely nothing in the script that sets her out from the archetypal ‘dumb blonde’ we have seen time and time again in film.
Though not Wright’s fault, her role pales in comparison to Margot Robbie’s scene-stealing turn in The Wolf of Wall Street and, through its execution and writing, strikes you as a poor intimation first and foremost. It really pales in comparison, a theme found throughout American Made.
Domhnall Gleeson has more luck as Schafer: Gleeson has some really sharp moments and methods to convey Schafer’s sly tactics and threats, and he remains somewhat mysterious throughout – whether intentional or down to (again) a lazy script – it works well enough.
Poor, lazy and pale imitation
Addressing Gary Spinelli’s screenplay on a more general level, its structure is where the cracks really begin to show. Dipping in and out of timelines and settings like a high school history teacher recapping an entire syllabus on the morning of an exam, it feels crammed and claustrophobic and overwhelming and underwhelming, at the same time.
It tries to touch upon many of the major milestones in Seal’s life but attaches the same, monotonous tone to each – ‘his life is crazy!!!!’, ‘so clever!!!!’ ‘what a guy!!!! – and it begins to grate and become increasingly tiresome (my polite way of saying it’s utterly dull).
We’re dealing with a (very) flawed character but you would never tell from the screenplay: it frames him as a hero we should admire for his gusto and panache – frankly, it’s wrong and it prevents American Made from exploring its more interesting and engaging facets more freely.
In Summary: American Made
Laying blame is a difficult one because nothing is particularly awful: even the screenplay, which is where most of my issues lie, peppers a handful of decent set pieces and sequences throughout – but there’s nobody on-hand to elevate the picture.
Cruise, Wright and Gleeson can only do so much and Liman seems reluctant go above and beyond – perhaps he realised early on that he’s dealing with a second-rate feature-length trying to be something it’s not – and fails to provide the film with a spark that could at least distract from the well-worn, monotonous track we tread.
American Made is as middle-of-the-road as they come; if the weather is particular depressing and you genuinely have nothing better to do – we’ve all been there – think about giving American Made a go. But not on my explicit recommendation.
What are your thoughts on American Made?
American Made was released on September 29, 2017.
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.