TL;DR
  • Fun, fast-paced and full of excitement
  • Cruise is excellent as his usual cocky, lovable persona, laughing with us in the face of danger
  • Great cast, though some characters are missed opportunities – Lucy and the pilots particularly are underused
  • Whilst enjoyable to watch, there are just so many montages, sticking to this biopic convention for most of the film
  • Lots of personality and style from start to finish, energising the film

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American Made sees Hollywood superstar Tom Cruise team up with Edge of Tomorrow director Doug Liman for the second time, this time in a much more different kind of film – a biopic. Biopics can be a tricky genre; many are enjoyable, but so many more seem to fail. Balancing a fine line between truth and fiction, they have to entertain while telling a story true to life and respecting those involved. More than this, biopic conventions can become stale and boring. Yet Liman and Cruise together brought us a refreshing and intriguing take on sci-fi/action films in Edge of Tomorrow – can they do the same for biopics? In short, yes and no. Though a simple but exciting story well-told and fun to watch, the biopic conventions and structures are the same we’ve seen before and become a little monotonous and repetitive.

Photo by David James – © Universal Pictures
Expert pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is approached by CIA agent Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), asking him to quit his job as commercial pilot and work for the CIA, flying over Central America and taking photos of Communist camps. These trips back and forth soon get more interesting and dangerous as he starts transporting cargo, from guns to drugs. Still, he’s making too much money for himself and his long-suffering wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) and enjoying the high-flying lifestyle to give it up. Eventually working for the CIA, the White House, Pablo Escobar and running from the FBI and the DEA, American Made charts the story of Barry Seal, from rags to riches and everything in between.

Photo by David James – © Universal Pictures
In terms of structure and story it’s very reminiscent of lots of crime biopics, particularly Scorsese’s Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street; it’s almost as if Liman took these as his main inspiration as there are so many similarities – fans of these films are bound to enjoy elements of American Made, rife with innumerable montages and voiceovers. The problem is, once you take a step back and really look at it, there are just so many – more than just one Rocky-esque montage. A couple of scenes, then a montage with a voiceover, then another scene, followed by another montage accompanied by a voiceover; rinse repeat (and repeat). This is the structure the film follows for the majority of its runtime and it does start to wear a little thin, feeling repetitive.

Still, the plot itself is fairly light and simple while also fun and entertaining, charting the progression of Barry’s journey from rags to riches (and inevitably rags again), yet within these montages they cram so much in, it feels like an epic journey with a huge story. So much enjoyable detail is packed into these while still keeping the story flowing at an excellent pace that we never really get tired of the constant montages. They’re fun, often amusing, and bring so much for us to enjoy. The film just doesn’t slow down for you to think, evoking its protagonist’s adrenaline-seeking nature – this is where so much of the fun and personality in the story come from.

Photo by David James – © Universal Pictures
More than this though, the montages are a perfect showcase of the style and personality the director injects into the film. The voiceovers are perfect accompaniments to the fun montages (full credit given to both Tom Cruise for his delivery and Gary Spinelli for his excellent screenplay), but it’s the director’s style that makes this film a fun affair, constantly laughing and poking fun at the danger Barry frequently finds himself in. It’s light and comedic, with animated maps that are like a cross between Indiana Jones and Dad’s Army. The music choices too aren’t only authentic to the era, plunging us headfirst into the 1970s and 1980s, but really put us in the giddily excitable mood we should be in as we enjoy watching Barry get away with everything. It’s a fun, cocky style that suits the main character and drives the film.

Photo by David James – © Universal Pictures
While Cruise’s performance is spot-on, his portrayal of Barry Seal is similar to many other characters he’s played; lovable, but cocky guys who always have a smart way out, consistently laughing in the face of danger. So while he may not be showcasing his range, this is a persona Cruise puts across excellently every time he seems to have a chance, and it really is a perfect match for the character in this film. In many ways really he carries this film, showing his real talent as an actor since we never get fed up of nearly 2 hours of nigh on constant Tom Cruise. Still this is largely due to the fact that the script rarely gives anyone else a chance. The character we see the next most of would be Domhnall Gleeson’s CIA man Schafer, who is wonderfully ambiguous, never letting us know whether he should be trusted. He keeps this going for the whole film and plays well opposite Cruise; it’s just a shame he doesn’t get a chance for his character to develop to the extent it could have done. The Medellín cartel too are excellent, a careful balance of welcoming charm with a sinister undercurrent of cruel menace and violence.

Sadly many other characters are unfairly marginalised, not having the screentime they really deserve. While Caleb Landry Jones has a nice brief turn as Lucy’s annoying, trouble-making brother (a very similar role to his one in Get Out just a few months earlier…), it’s all too brief. This extends to the four pilots Barry recruits to join his little gang. Each of these characters could have been unique and quirky, befitting of the film’s style and really enriching the roster of characters. Instead they’re left by the wayside, occasionally appearing for plot-points or small laughs. It felt as if they were only included for the sake of historical accuracy, whereas they could have been developed into wonderful little characters. Sarah Wright’s Lucy however is the biggest missed opportunity. Continuing the comparison to The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese really did something excellent with Margot Robbie’s character, Naomi, that part alone making her the huge star she is today. Her characterisation was excellent, she was spunky and full of personality in every scene. If only the script had allowed for more to be made of Lucy in American Made. Beautiful, effortlessly sexy and loyal even when the going gets rough, Wright’s portrayal is excellent and it’s a joy to watch her. However, it feels like with a bit more of a chance she could have been more than just eye candy and the ‘wife-left-back-home’. The family scenes seem less important that the money-grabbing main plot. Her inclusion improves as the film goes on, yet it still feels as though more could have been done with her, though she’s a joy in the scenes she’s in.

Photo by David James – © Universal Pictures
Funny, fast-paced and with tons of enjoyable detail in more montages than you can count, this is a fun, stylish biopic which you can’t help but enjoy. Though the structure (particularly the montages) can become repetitive, not much is done to make it stand out or refresh the biopic genre and despite the film focusing too much on Cruise when there were some potentially excellent characters left on the side, this is a crime-comedy-biopic that never slows down, giving you all the thrills and excitement Cruise’s character is in constant search of.

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