Movie Review: American Made

With the summer movie season in North America now officially over, the numbers are starting to come in and the picture isn’t pretty – it’s been a brutal few months at the box office there. Domestic ticket sales are down 16 percent from the same period last year and, for the first time since 2006, receipts failed to reach US$4 billion. Fortunately, as Hollywood has discovered in recent years, there’s literally a world of movie-goers outside its own borders eager to lap up American content and some films that bombed at home (such as THE MUMMY and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES) have done extremely well overseas. This aligns with something I’ve been saying for years: There’s a market for crap films in developing countries.

Amidst all this financial doom and gloom, one film has come along to try and break the curse. Try. I doubt AMERICAN MADE is going to be the megahit that Hollywood is itching for but at least it’s entertaining enough to warrant movie-goers spending about US$12 (or the equivalent in your country) on a ticket.

Very loosely based on the true story of Barry Seal, a commercial pilot who became a not-so-covert gun runner for the CIA and along the way became fabulously rich thanks to some side deals he made with Pablo Escobar and the Medellin drug cartel, AMERICAN MADE is a wild and crazy, roller coaster look at American government corruption, incompetence and naiveté when it comes to its foreign affairs. Reminiscent of the rags-to-riches story of arms dealers Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz (WAR DOGS), AMERICAN MADE begins in the early 1970s when Seal (Tom Cruise) is a glorified bus driver, plying domestic air routes, as well as the occasional “international” hop to Vancouver, for TWA. Ever the type to push the envelope, he also has a nice sideline business going smuggling Cuban cigars into the country, thanks to those Vancouver jaunts where the cigars are sold legally. Both his flying expertise and his rule-breaking nature catches the attention of CIA handler, Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS; BROOKLYN; EX MACHINA), who convinces him to become an agency operative. They want him to fly low over Central America and take photos of the various Communist-backed militias that are gaining a foothold there. To seal the deal (no pun intended), Schafer gives Seal his very own twin-engine Aerostar kitted out with the latest in high tech spying technology.

Seal quickly proves to be a huge asset to the agency, providing them with valuable photographic intelligence. His activities soon expand to couriering cash payments to Panama’s General Noriega in exchange for written intelligence on America’s Central American enemies. Seal’s jaunts to the region, however, don’t go unnoticed by the Colombian drug lords who kidnap him and convince him to become a conduit for them to expand their cocaine business into the US. Although the CIA knows about Seal’s new sideline as a drug mule, they turn a blind eye to it, even to the point of informing him ahead of time that the Drug Enforcement Agency is closing in on him. With Schafer’s help, Seal gets set up in Arkansas with a new assignment – transporting Russian-made guns confiscated by the Israelis down to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Now with five planes to his name, he and his buddies are able to increase their drug shipments from Colombia too. Not surprisingly, Seal eventually lands squarely on the radar of the DEA, the FBI and a few other law enforcement agencies to boot and they arrest him. However, Seal knows too much at this point to be caged and he knows it.

Unlike WAR DOGS, AMERICAN MADE is an entertaining film, thanks in no small part to the dream team of Cruise and director Doug Liman. The two previously worked together on the 2014 film, EDGE OF TOMORROW, which was very well received by critics. For Cruise, this is a movie tailor-made for him, where he can flash his toothsome smile and boyish looks which, at the age of 53, are testament to the deft handiwork of his dentist and dermatologist. Throughout the film, Cruise takes every opportunity to play to the camera, showing off his trademark physical, high-powered acting style, which includes, I understand, crash landing that plane. Curiously, while all the other actors in the film are wearing clothes and have hairstyles that are relevant to the time, Cruise dresses and looks much like he would today, right down to the Randolph Engineering aviator sunglasses, which are not only identical to the ones he wore in OBLIVION but are conspicuously reminiscent of the Ray-Bans he wore in that other flyboy movie of his, TOP GUN. Is this code to his fans to promote his TOP GUN sequel? We’ll find out in just under two years’ time. Also curious are the scenes where Seal is celebrating with the Colombians, It’s always over shotglasses filled with tequila; never the white powder, which is probably how the real guys partied it up. Presumably, Cruise’s closely-guarded image wouldn’t allow for him to be seen snorting cocaine even if it is a prop.

Neither AMERICAN MADE nor Barry Seal are stories you’re going to give a lot of thought about when the lights come up in the cinema, but for those two hours beforehand, you’ll have a great ride. It’ll certainly be the best ride you’ll have had in quite a while.

Watch the review recorded in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Facebook Live!

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