For a re­view of “Amer­i­can Made,”

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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.

 ½

“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.”

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