Goodfellas may not have been the first film to use its signature storytelling template, but it certainly did become the shining example of it. That template is, of course, the one where the main character narrates his exploits within some kind of exotic underworld whose mechanics were heretofore unknown to us. It’s the one where he begins every sentence with “we,” identifying a select fraternity of sexy lawbreakers that include himself, and then gives insider details on the laundering of money, the consumption of drugs, the seduction of women or the whacking of rivals.
Unfortunately, most films that follow this template are not nearly in the same league as Martin Scorsese’s 1990 classic, and American Made is the latest not to emerge from Goodfellas’ shadow – even featuring a star like Tom Cruise, or perhaps because of that.
Cruise plays a real pilot named Barry Seal, who flew for a commercial U.S. airline in the late 1970s and started smuggling Cuban cigars into the U.S. just to enliven his routine. That brought him to the attention of the CIA, who wanted him for something a lot less dull: taking photographs of Latin American revolutionaries by flying low over their encampments. Evading machine gun fire and the tops of trees really gets the blood pumping, and before long Seal found himself flying cocaine into the U.S. for what would soon become the Colombian Medellin cartel. Add run-ins with Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and flying Latin American soldiers to his Arkansas compound to train them to fight, and you’ve got a guy whose story is really worth telling, right?
Not exactly. Seal is dubbed “the gringo who always delivers,” but that’s about all we know about him. He has a foul-mouthed wife (that’s all we know about her) and a couple girls (generic cherubs), and they all seem fine co-signing his deal with the devil as long as it brings them bigger houses and better stuff. His wife (Sarah Wright) has a gloriously rednecky brother played by Caleb Landry Jones, whose anarchic wardrobe combinations are the least of the menace he oozes. But he feels like he might be acting in a different movie. Then there’s also his CIA handler, played by Domhnall Gleeson, who digs into the role of the guy with the big grin, the guy with plausible deniability, the guy who might exist or might not, the “hey it’s not legal but you’re serving your country” guy.
It all amounts to a lot of flash and a lot of style and not much else. And sometimes the style isn’t there either, as director Doug Liman tries to give the film stock a 70s look, but it’s “cruddy 70s” rather than “snappy 70s.” Liman and Cruise made a marvellously entertaining movie called Edge of Tomorrow three years ago, one that felt fresh and exciting, and functioned as a bit of a revival for them both. This feels as stale as that felt fresh. It’s unclear why either thought it was time to do “their Goodfellas,” but they don’t wear it well, and they’re following a tired path trod by many others.
Cruise hasn’t lost any of his star power, but it’s clear from this movie how important it is that his character is doing good things in order for us to like him. Cruise is a star but he’s not naturally sympathetic, and may never have been. When he’s smarmy and also breaking the law in flagrant and unjustifiable ways, we simply don’t like him. The movie tries to convince us that Seal stumbled into his moral compromises, and frequently was powerless to avoid them at the risk of the safety of his wife and children. But he sure does grin a lot for a guy being forced to do things he doesn’t want to do, and sure does gleefully describe the ways in which he was running out of room to stash wads of illicit cash on his property.
What saves American Made from tedium is that it flows and is pretty watchable. But it’s indebted to so many better movies that it really does feel beneath the talent involved, especially when the movie is failing in rather obvious ways in its basic execution. For example, there’s a whole passage in which Seal talks gleefully (he does everything gleefully) about the new policies toward Nicaragua under Ronald Reagan. An on-screen title then flashes the date “1980.” Of course, Reagan was elected in 1980, but he didn’t actually take office until 1981, meaning that was the earliest he could have formulated any Nicaraguan policies.
That may seem like a small point, but it’s emblematic of a general carelessness in the details. It was a miscalculation on the details that led to the failure of another “American made” product, the Edsel, that ugly and overpriced car Ford introduced in the late 1950s that was a total bust. American Made is a fun ride on occasion, but in the end it’s pretty much of a bust.