ON.SCREEN

THE EM­PIRE GUIDE TO EVERY­THING IN CIN­E­MAS THIS MONTH

Empire (Australasia) - - On Screen - JEREMY CAS­SAR

ON PA­PER, THE

true story of de­vi­ous pilot Barry Seal screams cin­e­matic po­ten­tial, so much so that one won­ders why it’s taken this long for a screen­writer to snap it up. From 1978 un­til the mid-’80s, the man col­lected covert data for the CIA, brought co­caine into the states for Pablo Es­co­bar, pro­vided guns to the Us-backed free­dom fight­ers in Nicaragua, ran a sketchy airport out of a tiny town in Arkansas, and capped it all off with a suc­cess­ful stint as a DEA in­for­mant. Any fic­tion­alised ver­sion of his life was sure to force us to the edge of our seats, right?

Wrong, and then some. Di­rec­tor Doug Li­man and screen­writer Gary Spinelli have taken an un­de­ni­ably high-stakes saga and some­how stripped it of all its in­her­ent weight, opt­ing for cool and breezy se­quences over im­mer­sive sto­ry­telling.

When we first meet Seal (Tom Cruise), he’s pi­lot­ing a night­time in­ter­state plane while cab­ins full of pas­sen­gers (as well as his co-pilot) catch a nap. Seal’s not hav­ing a bar of it, so he flicks off the au­topi­lot and messes with the man­ual steer­ing in or­der to feign tur­bu­lence and jolt ev­ery­one awake. Seal is unhappy with his long-dor­mant life, and yearns to shake things up.

We’re barely a few min­utes into the film and this is the last bit of gen­uine char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion we get out of our an­ti­hero. When he’s ap­proached by the CIA to par­take in a covert op­er­a­tion of un­par­al­leled scale in Cen­tral Amer­ica, he takes to the job as if he were a DJ ac­cept­ing a high-pay­ing gig at a su­per­club — all ca­sual and en­thu­si­as­tic smiles. There’s the ini­tial sug­ges­tion that Seal is in it for the money, but as his sit­u­a­tion com­pli­cates, his char­ac­ter emp­ties of any es­tab­lished cargo — all mo­ti­va­tions fall by the way­side and he spends most of the film as a ves­sel as empty as one of his post-de­liv­ery air­planes.

Seal’s sub­se­quent seven-year stint as the Amer­ica’s most sought-af­ter mid­dle­man is treated

as one long joyride. Take the wealth-amass­ing mon­tage out of Scar­face or Blow and stretch it out over seventy min­utes and that’s ba­si­cally the first two acts of Amer­i­can Made. He zips back and forth from one Amer­ica to an­other, pick­ing up and emp­ty­ing cargo and col­lect­ing bags of cash for his trou­bles. It’s highly com­pe­tent plane porn pro­pelled by noth­ing but driv­ing rock mu­sic.

Per­haps most con­cern­ing is that the riches come too easy for Seal. One op­por­tu­nity af­ter an­other fall into his lap and he takes each and ev­ery one of them with­out reser­va­tion. The ob­sta­cles are few and far be­tween, and even when they do arise the so­lu­tion is only ever a sim­ple sec­ond away. At one point, when his grow­ing ar­se­nal of planes is chased mid-air by the DEA, he sim­ply grins through the con­flict and or­ders his fleet to fly around un­til the au­thor­i­ties run out of fuel.

Seal is stuck in a sin­gle gear, a state of be­ing that car­ries over to his per­sonal life. The dan­ger in which he’s placed his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), and their two chil­dren never seems to reg­is­ter. He just smirks, acts cute, and moves on his merry way.

The sup­port­ing cast of char­ac­ters fare no bet­ter, though the ac­tors do well to serve up their parts with style. Lucy is ini­tially wor­ried about the fam­ily re­main­ing to­gether, but that gripe fades into the back­ground as she joins Seal’s one-note cash party. Seal’s CIA han­dler, Monty Schafer (Domhn­hall Glee­son), ap­pears out of nowhere at var­i­ous in­stances to de­liver the next bit of plot, and may as well come with a twirling mous­tache. Jesse Ple­mons’ Sher­iff Down­ing is such a noth­ing char­ac­ter that one won­ders why such a fan­tas­tic ac­tor was hired for such a slight part.

You’d think that these flip­pant two-thirds were in­ten­tion­ally set­ting us up for a su­per­charged final act, but by the time we get to Seal’s roost­ing chick­ens, Cruise op­er­ates with just as much non­cha­lance. This is a char­ac­ter bereft of inner-con­flict — un­trou­bled by fear or doubt, or any­thing re­sem­bling a con­science. There’s no self-as­sess­ment, which might be ac­cept­able if he was set-up as a so­ciopath, but no, he’s just a cool guy be­ing badass into obliv­ion, and it makes it al­most im­pos­si­ble to care about his fate.

Con­trary to what the above sug­gests, Amer­i­can Made isn’t bereft of en­ter­tain­ing qual­i­ties, and the best way to en­joy it is to re­ceive it like candy. It may lack sub­stance, but it’s sug­ary enough for as long as it lasts. Just don’t ex­pect a multi-faceted biopic about the real Barry Seal’s multi-faceted life. I suf­fered from that ex­pec­ta­tion, and walked away with only two words on the mind: missed op­por­tu­nity.

VER­DICT Solid per­for­mances and en­er­getic di­rec­tion aren’t enough turn Amer­i­can Made into the clas­sic it could have been. Watch­able yet ul­ti­mately air­headed.

Clock­wise from left: CIA han­dler Monty Schafer (Domh­nall Glee­son) keeps an eye on Barry Seal (Tom Cruise); Cruise’s Seal cruises the skies; Seal talks his way out of trou­ble with the au­thor­i­ties; the shifty pilot with wife Lucy (Sarah Wright).

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