Remember Tom from Myspace?
He was a real person. In fact, Tom was "Tom Anderson," the co-founder of Myspace and a millionaire many times over who left the company after it was acquired by News Corp. and before it started its death spiral into its current state of subsistence.
As I was watching American Made, I couldn't help but think of Myspace Tom, a real person who never seemed like a real person and yet a person who was projected onto everyone's Myspace page as their "first friend." The way that Tom would stare at us with that "ordinary joe meets charismatic cult leader" smile used to creep the holy crap out of me.
Truthfully, I unfriended him.
There was a time when I looked forward to a Tom Cruise motion picture. Long before Katie Holmes had his poster on her bedroom wall, Cruise would put on regular displays of acting. I mean, sure, he often gave us the same knowing looks and he often played variations of the same character whether that character was flying a plane, in a wheelchair, a savant or dancing in his underwear, but Cruise had a marvelous knack for balancing box-office machismo with artistic integrity. He occasionally cruised, but he also occasionally stretched himself outside his comfort zone.
Magnolia. Rain Man. Jerry Maguire. Born on the Fourth of July.
I could forgive those paycheck flicks like Cocktail, The Last Samurai, Collateral and countless others.
The truth is that Cruise has more Razzie nominations (4) than Academy Award nominations (3). The other painful truth is that with the exception of Cruise's rather incidental Golden Globe nomination for his comedic work in Tropic Thunder in 2008 that it's been nearly 15 years since Cruise has put forth anything resembling an acting effort in favor of his paint-by-numbers action flicks where you can be sure that it wouldn't matter if he was flying a plane, in a wheelchair, a savant or dancing in his underwear - you would always get the same action sequences with the same set-ups and the same Tom Cruise flashing those same pristine pearly whites and chuckling away while mayhem is all around him.
Thus, we arrive at American Made, Cruise's latest film and a film that practically begs for a heavier tone and a darker Cruise and something outside the same ol' Tom Cruise that we've seen countless times before. American Made isn't a bad film. American Made isn't a good film. American Made is a Tom Cruise film and it's a film that, for the most part, you know exactly what to expect from as you enter the theatre and you get exactly what you expect.
American Made could have been a damn fine film. Based upon the mostly fairly true story of Barry Seal, an American airline pilot who became a drug smuggler for the Medellin Cartel, American Made takes a larger than life story and brings it down to size mostly owing to Gary Spinelli's tonally inconsistent script and Cruise's absolute refusal to dig beyond the surface of his character's rather extraordinary reality.
A licensed pilot by age 16 who spent six years in the Louisiana Army National Guard and eventually became one of TWA's youngest command pilots, Seal began to find legal trouble even before his career at TWA ended and his real life story in becoming one of the Medellin Cartel's most trusted and effective drug smugglers and, eventually, a DEA informant, is the kind of story that Hollywood would almost have to tone down rather than spice up. While Spinelli's script serves up the usual Hollywood dramatic license with the story, American Made still has the makings of a pretty sensational flick based upon a pretty sensational story.
If only Tom Cruise were sensational.
Looking nothing like the real life Barry Seal and not particularly trying to do so, Cruise flirts with playing Seal sympathetically but never really commits to the approach. Similarly, the real life Seal's self-serving, reptilian nature never comes to life via Cruise and, in fact, there's nary an emotion to be found in the film's 115-minute running time. D.P. Cesar Chalone delivers far more consistently than Cruise's gringo who always delivers.
American Made is directed by Doug Liman, whose father helped investigate the Iran-Contra Affair, and while the action sequences are occasionally the captivating sequences we expect from a Cruise film far too much of the film never really takes a consistent point of view. There are moments when the political absurdity of it all comes to light, with Reagan, Bush and Governor Clinton all making appearances here, but these scenes seem more motivated by pulling off one more punchline than actually exploring the absurdly dark humor apparent in it all.
Heck, even a little more humorous paranoia would have helped.
Cruise isn't bad here. Heck, how bad can Cruise be when he's portraying a slightly messier version of himself? I just miss the days when Cruise would dig deeper and explore further and mess up his hair and be comfortable with his flaws. Cruise is still a decent enough action star, but I sure as heck miss Tom Cruise the actor.
Despite being saddled with the thankless "girl in a Tom Cruise flick" role, Sarah Wright (Marry Me) is rather dazzling and shows more emotions in her awkwardly edited scenes than Tom Cruise does as the centerpiece of his own film. In fact, nearly everyone in this film, possible exception being Domhnall Gleeson, is given almost nothing to do other than to stand back and stay clearly outside the Tom Cruise glow.
Most Tom Cruise fans, especially those of his action work, will be just fine with what unfolds in American Made, though it's infinitely less dazzling than any of his Mission: Impossible films and truly only superior to those two recent godawful efforts, The Mummy and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. If you're intrigued by Seal's story, and you probably should be, check out Dennis Hopper in 1991's Doublecrossed or even the underrated Michael Pare's brief appearance as Seal in last year's historically inaccurate but entertaining The Infiltrator.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic