For a review of “American Made,”
As soon as the Universal logo flickers and switches to its retro ’ 70s look and the disco music starts to play, jazzing up Jimmy Carter speeches and old news footage, we know what we’re in for with the cocaine- smuggling adventure “American Made.” This is a romp and a half. Maybe even three.
Director Doug Liman has never been aminimalist filmmaker, and “American Made” just might be his most maximalist film yet. It skitters and jumps, shivers and boot scoots, never, ever sitting still. You could say it’s like “Blow,” on well, blow. But there’s a breezy sunniness to this film, which looks like a faded snapshot reclaimed from an ’ 80s photo album. VHS lines and time stamps crackle effervescently.
“American Made” casts a nostalgic golden filter on what was admittedly a rather dark and dramatic period in U. S. history. Drug cartel- related violence plagued the Southeast while the first lady urged everyone to “just say no.” Meanwhile, the American government was essentially allowing the illegal import of cocaine while providing guns to the rebels fighting the Communist Sandinista army in Central America.
This is all told through the true life story of pilot, drug smuggler and informant Barry Seal ( Tom Cruise). Hotshot flyboy Seal is Maverick gone a bit soft, a commercial TWA pilot who takes up with the CIA and Medellin cartel because he’s got mouths to feed and an elastic moral compass.
Through Barry’s perspective, “American Made,” which is written by Gary Spinelli, is the Iran- Contra Affai r for Dummies, explained in simple terms and sometimes animation via Barry’s voiceover ( a framing device has him telling his life story into a VHS camera in late 1985, early 1986). With a Louisiana drawl, Cruise’s Barry joshes about how his top secret CIA gig taking surveillance photos of the Communist armies turned into delivering Soviet AK- 47s to rebel fighters, and returning with thousands of kilos of cocaine, dodging DEA and FBI planes along theway. All the while, he was raking in more cash than he could keep track of.
Magnetically energetic as always, Cruise merely serves as the star vessel through which this story passes. The supporting actors steal the show, including Caleb Landry Jones as his redneck brother- in- law, and a fantastically smarmy Domhnall Gleeson as Barry’s CIA contact “Schafer.” Jesse Plemons is also predictably great in a small role as a naive small town sheriff.
But this is Barry’s film from first frame to last. Some ( OK a lot of) creative license has been taken for dramatic effect, but when it comes to the governmental machinations, that’s all pretty real. It feels at times that “American Made” has too light a touch on this material, and the actual bad guys only take a few real shots for their responsibility in these events. Our sense of President Ronald Reagan here is as a cultural figure, the Gipper, rather than political actor.
“American Made” has some glorious moments when it’s firing on all cylinders at once, but it can’t sustain that throughout. It shows its references, a combination of “Goodfellas,” “Blow” and “Scarface,” but never achieves the internal consistency of those films. This is far more roughshod. But somehow, despite its jitters and at times herky- jerky awkwardness, “American Made” has an undeniable shaggy- dog charm.
“American Made,” a Universal Pictures release, is ratedR for language throughout and some sexuality/ nudity. Running time: 115 minutes.
“Victoria and Abdul”
There are only a handful of actors who dramatically increase the quality of a film simply with their presence. Without the casting of Judi Dench as Queen Victoria in “Victoria and Abdul,” the period film from director Stephen Frears would have been a passable story of how a woman, strangled by the confines of themonarchy, manages to reach out beyond the palace walls. Dench is such acting royalty that she elevates the tale to amore regal level.
“Victoria and Abdul” looks at the later years of Queen Victoria’s rule at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Her constant concerns about world politics and family issues have left her in a despondent state. This changes when a young Indian clerk, Abdul Karim ( Ali Fazal), travels to England to be part of the queen’s Golden Jubilee. What is supposed to be a short ceremony becomes a deep friendship as Queen Victoria convinces Abdul to become her spiritual adviser known as the Munshi.
The disregard for what has been normal protocol sends the staff and family members into a spin. None is more upset than her son Bertie ( Eddie Izzard), the Prince of Wales. Despite all of the efforts to separate the pair, the relationship continues for 15 years.
Frears has already shown he has a knack for pulling back the royal robes to expose the more human side of the monarchy through his 2006 film “The Queen,” which focused on Queen Elizabeth II ( Helen Mirren) after the death of Princess Diana. As he did with that film, Frears shows with “Victoria and Abdul” that behind all the pomp and circumstance are people who live, love and laugh like anyone else on the planet.
He establishes that immediately in “Victoria and Abdul”: In the opening sequence, Queen Victoria prepares for her morning meal. She is not only suffering from a variety of medical problems but her weight has made even getting out of bed an event. Dench shows how the queen is dealing with not only her physical restrictions but also the weight of being in charge of an empire where the sun never sets in the simple way she shuffles down a hallway. Great actors can convey a lifetime of emotions without saying a singleword.
This sets up how beautiful the contrast is once the queen has found someone with whom she can talk without worrying about how her statements will impact the world or her family. Dench slowly turns up the energy so that by the time the queen reaches a new nirvana in her life, she has gone from beaten soul to energized ruler.
Dench brings so much to every word, wink and walk that it puts extreme pressure on those around her. Fazal has established himself in the Bollywood world but his being cast as Abdul gave him the biggest acting challenges of his career. He responds with a performance that doesn’t get overshadowed by the work Dench does.
He has the tough task of playing an eternal optimist. This is not easy because he had to find the right amount of energy to counter the funk that has encompassed the queen without going too far and making the role a caricature. Fazal manages to do that and in the process makes the scenes with Dench even stronger.
Izzard has become very dependable in playing characters who become mired in frustration. He understands that there are levels to disliking someone or something that goes from annoyance to hatred. He handles each step with great skill.
Frears uses these actors to make the screenplay by Lee Hall ( based on the book by Shrabani Basu) a light look at a relationship between two very different people. At times, their connection seems like the loving link between a woman and the son she would have liked to have had, while at other times there’s a deep pure love between the two.
Hall’s script never digs into any examination of how this unique relationship impacted the political, social and economic elements of the time. The approach is more like one used to make a Hallmark romance movie, where the story stays at a superficial layer allowing the connections and misconnections between the players tell the story.
Frears could get away with that because of Dench. Her acting gravitas is strong enough to make even the lightest of stories automatically feel like they havemore girth. And that’s what happens with “Victoria and Abdul.”
“Victoria And Abdul,” a Focus Features release, is rated PG- 13 for thematic elements, language. Running time: 112 minutes.
Judi Dench, left, and Ali Fazal star in the new Focus Features film “Victoria and Abdul.”