Bruce Steele: Can we just start this discussion of Tom Cruise’s new movie by acknowledging that American Made is perhaps the worst, most shameless movie title of the year so far?
Edwin Arnaudin: Yes. Yes, we can.
Bruce: It tells you nothing about the film and everything about the people marketing it. Why not, at least, American Smuggler, in the mode of American Assassin? Because despite the fact that he had CIA connections, real-life pilot Barry Seal (Cruise) was basically a brazen drug smuggler.
Edwin: Exactly. As is, one could be excused for thinking it’s a patriotic reboot of the 2001 Jon Favreau/Vince Vaughn film. Smuggler at least gets to the core of Barry’s personality, and to be a successful runner of illegal items, he needs a good amount of charisma, luck, skill and disregard for the law. I think all of the above comes through in Cruise’s performance — the first of his I’ve enjoyed since 2011’s Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol — and the film’s playfully dark tone. Were you similarly charmed?
Bruce: I agree Seal had to have both skill and charisma, but Cruise and director Doug Liman clearly want him also to be likeable to the point of seeming nearly blameless, and I found that a curious choice. Liman is trying to recreate the magic of GoodFellas, with its mix of crime drama, comedy and social comment, but while Henry Hill clearly evolves from boisterous kid to drug-addled weasel, Seal stays happy-go-lucky to the end.
Edwin: Seal's childlike, renegade Boy Scout approach to some — apologies in advance — risky business is central to his appeal. But whenever he gets caught, he accepts his fate…only to be sprung again and again by higher ups. Were the subdued consequences (at least for most of the film) a flaw for you or part of the film’s merits?
Bruce: I enjoyed many of the film’s lighter moments, especially those with Seal’s fictional CIA handler (Domhnall Gleason, who’s a hoot). But after a while, the lack of any moral gravity turned me off. There’s even a murder, for which Seal bears some responsibility, that turns into a laugh line and is then forgotten. Seal is complicit in the deaths of uncounted thousands through the guns and drugs he smuggles, but American Made presents his entire career as something of a lark. That didn’t bother you?
Edwin: Seal’s ties with Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía) and associates made my skin crawl a bit, but otherwise the glossing over of his actions’ darker consequences didn’t rattle me. Liman and screenwriter Gary Spinelli are too focused on entertaining viewers to derail the flow with weighty subject matter that’s sunk many a drug-related rise-and-fall narrative (e.g. Blow). I found the change of tone and bucking of cliché storytelling refreshing — and I still cared about Seal’s fate.
Bruce: I actually think the tone is the problem. In his quest to keep it unnaturally light, Liman is constantly casting about for gimmicks to loosen up the storytelling visually. The result is a hodgepodge of traditional filmmaking, random excursions into handheld camera and the occasional unmotivated speech almost directly into the camera. It’s like he can’t decide on a style for himself.
Edwin: Working in tandem with the frothy tone, I found the hodgepodge of styles key to holding my attention. It’s as if following the claustrophobic, single-location challenge of The Wall, Liman wanted to unleash his inner Soderbergh and open his own varied filmmaking toolbox. The camera confessionals are odd in the moment, but the chronologically progressing recording dates get one’s mind churning. It all makes sense in time and concludes with a simple yet breathtaking image that I suppose qualifies as a special effect.
Bruce: Thirty years into Tom Cruise’s career as a leading man, I think how you react to his movies depends greatly on how you react to him. I find him most credible (and most watchable) when he’s playing a largely unredeemed asshole, as in Rainman or The Color of Money or even Edge of Tomorrow. In American Made — did I mention I hate that title? — the character is an asshole, but the portrayal by both actor and filmmakers is more forgiving, “frothy,” as you put it. I didn’t buy it.
Edwin: I don’t have a favorite type of Cruise character. As long as he’s doing quality work and the filmmaking is above average, chances are good that I’ll be pleased. Both boxes are checked here for me, so I was never distracted to where I could be tripped up by the convincingness of his asshole-ishness.
Bruce: I will grant that Cruise deserves credit for many of the film's entertaining stretches, but he can't cover up for the fact that American Made is deeply dishonest about its subject. Even the trailer was something of a con job, presenting Cruise speaking lines to the camera that are delivered in a completely different way within the movie. Seal may be a fascinating rogue or just a heartless, greedy crook. I don’t think the movie made a good case for either side. I give it a C-minus.
Edwin: I don’t think it’s dishonest about Seal. He’s a slippery, multifaceted character who’s difficult to classify. Liman recognizes these qualities and structures his film to convey the wild, varied life of his subject during the late ‘70s and early-mid ‘80s. I wasn’t expecting much from American Made, but I laughed early and often and was impressed throughout by how its commitment to entertainment never really wavers. It earns a high B-plus from me.
Grade: B-minus. Rated R. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark
(Photos: Universal Pictures)