Review: American Made

Tom Cruise’s smile and a breakneck pace do little to disguise the lack of real substance

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Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman reunite in an adrenaline-fueled tale of former Trans World Airline Pilot Barry Seal. Had this been a work of pure fiction writer Gary Spinelli would be slammed for the unrealistic twists and turns the plot takes, but it is surprisingly grounded in truth. From smuggling drugs for Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel to running guns for the CIA to Central America Seal’s story was destined for a big screen portrayal.

His initial descent into smuggling was to add excitement into an otherwise humdrum life whilst also earning some extra money for his family. As so many true story rise-fall films before this, the protagonist begins chasing the American dream and their inevitable greed for greater leads to their downfall. After a few years Seal has so much money the local bank dedicates a vault purely for him yet this does not stop him from continuing. The question as to why is left perpetually unanswered, is it more money, notoriety, thrills? Even his passion seems to slowly die as time progresses.

Eventually he is arrested in a ludicrous scene where every law enforcement agency in America raids his hanger at exactly the same moment, with one member from each helping to take him. The events that follow include a Presidential intervention, Harley Davidson Motorcycles and the charity Salvation Army but  any attempt at an explanation would be fruitless in a bizarre climax to the film. One that leaves both Seal and I questioning our sanity.

Very quickly the repetitive formula of the film became monotonous and tiresome. He’ll get caught in an act red handed but miraculously escape every time with a smile while simultaneously digging himself a little deeper into the crime world. Equally frustrating was the incredible wealth Seal accrued without spending it on anything more lavish than putting in a pool. Part of the thrill of similar films such as The Wolf of Wall Street was seeing Belfort’s drug fuelled escapades. The craziest moment during Seal’s free time comes when he takes a shot of Tequila at a garden party.

American Made offers up little to show the consequences of his actions, fuelling both a drug war in Miami and a rebellion in Central America. His pivotal role in the rise of the Medellín Cartel will have indirectly cost the lives of thousands but this isn’t mentioned. Alternatively Liman could have made a critical political commentary of Reagan’s reign or the CIA but opts not to. Instead he relies on the charm of Cruise and a breakneck narrative pace to disguise the lack of any real underlying meaning. The journey is undoubtably an entertaining one but this, like Liman’s last project The Wall, is destined to be forgotten.

Peculiarly director Liman has a personal involvement with the resulting Iran-Contra scandal. His father Arthur L. Liman was chief counsel for the Senate investigation into the events and questioned Colonel Oliver North in the public hearings, a man who appears late on in the film.

Review: The Wall

An intriguing concept let down by the poor screenplay

Doug Liman goes back to his filmmaking roots for his ninth feature film with a budget of just $3 million. Set in Iraq after the American declaration of victory in 2007, this cat and mouse story involves an injured American soldier and a fabled Iraqi sniper and is shot entirely around, unsurprisingly, a wall. Unfortunately both walls collapse into a pile of rubble, one from repeated high calibre sniper rounds, and the other by the inconsistent debut screenplay of Dwain Worrell.

Sniper Shane Matthews (John Cena) and his spotter Allen ‘Ize’ Isaac (Aaron Tayor-Johnson) are called to investigate the construction site of an oil pipeline which the bodies of the workers and their security detail litter. 22 hours of scanning the area for any movement later and Matthews decides that it was the work of a group of terrorists who have long since vanished rather than a single sniper, much to the anger of Ize who repeatedly asserts that single, headshot bullet wounds are telltale signs of a sniper. Fuelled by pure American bravado, hotheadedness and with not the slightest concern for protocol, Matthews takes off his camouflage, leaves the safety of his hideout and heads into the war zone alone to prove he was right all along.

As Matthews reaches the bodies, he quickly senses something is wrong and in perfect cinematic timing his retribution is swift and instantaneous, taking a bullet to the stomach. Ize attempts rescue but gets hit in the knee in the process and is forced to take cover behind a small wall, his brother in arms lays in the open, alive, barely. Shortly after, the Iraqi sniper appears on Ize’s radio impersonating an army officer trying to trick Ize into giving his exactly location by firing in the air but is sussed out when Ize gets suspicious at the officer’s disregard for protocol, as if that stopped anyone before.

This scene is both the highlight of the film and the cause of its downfall. Verbal camouflage and trickery is an idea rarely explored in cinema but to fool the viewer as well as the on screen character the portrayal has to be convincing which it was absolutely not, think Ewen McGregor in Big Fish. Once the sniper or ‘Juba’ reveals himself the plot wanders into no mans land, slowly sinking under the weight of irrelevant dialogue and lacklustre sub-plots.

In an interview, Liman noted that the characters in his movies are unconventional superheroes, Tom Cruise’s Bill Cage in Edge of Tomorrow for example, and the same can be said here. Although the Groundhog Day ability of Cruise is far more believable than the pinpoint accuracy of this Iraqi sniper. From over 1500 yards we are to believe that ‘Juba’ intentionally hits the radio antenna, water canteen and knee of ‘Ize’ as he frantically strafes trying to dodge the bullets, leaving him without backup, water and bleeding out.

Despite the numerous flaws of the film, Liman deserves praise for creating an almost heatstroke-inducing environment. The endless dust and blazing sun emphasises the harsh conditions of the Iraq conflict. Aaron Taylor Johnson continues to go from strength to strength putting in the performance of his career as Ize, and John Cena proves to everyone that he most certainly can act, at least in the handful of scenes where he was conscious.

The Wall falls into the most frustrating category of cinema. Movies that aren’t distinctly good or bad, but are remarkably average and as a result, utterly forgettable. The only question that you’ll be left pondering when the credits rolls is ‘Why does Doug Liman repeatedly shame me for the Iraq War as if I was the one who said they had WMD’s?’