The cinematic union of the Greek tragedy and the epic crime drama remains, somewhere between the automobile and Penicillin, one of the best inventions the 20th century ever gave us. The original “Scarface” from 1932 became the first significant foray into the cross-genre, creating the template that directors like Brian De Palma would improve upon and Martin Scorcese would perfect. It’s been 27 years since Scorcese’s “Goodfellas” set the standard for the tragic crime epic, but its influence still shapes the film landscape. Case in point: “American Made.”
Director Doug Liman’s “American Made” chronicles Trans-World Atlantic pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) as he plays both sides in the Reagan-era South American affairs of the 1980’s. It’s essentially the old sitcom trope where the main character ends up with two dates to the prom, except the dates are the CIA and the Medellín Cartel — and instead of dancing, Seal is flying cocaine from Colombia across the U.S. border.
There’s no denying “American Made” pays homage to the breakneck-paced Scorsese epics, but it’s done skillfully by Liman, who’s succeeded in genres ranging from buddy comedies like “Swingers” to action thrillers like “The Bourne Identity” and “Edge of Tomorrow” (another Cruise vehicle). The movie moves quickly and eclipses its predecessors in terms of sheer speed, covering an eight-year span in a brisk 117 minutes without sacrificing any key details or characterization. You’re shown why Seal makes the decisions he makes, why he occasionally puts his family in a tough spot and why the meteoric rise becomes a precipitous drop.
Plenty of the work fell on Tom Cruise’s shoulders, and he didn’t disappoint. His bizarre personal life has often distracted from a stellar career, but it’s worth noting that he’s been carrying movies for over three decades. After his “Risky Business” coming-out party in 1983, Cruise has made dramatic and unexpected turns ever since, highlighted by movies like “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Magnolia,” and “Eyes Wide Shut” where he’s had the most screen time and been asked to carry the emotional burden. The Barry Seal character doesn’t necessarily challenge Cruise in ways we haven’t seen before, but he embodies the paranoia, opportunism, and occasional arrogance of a real guy that played a crucial role in an era of international affairs that has been largely forgotten.
It’s not just Cruise, either. The rest of the cast answers the call and makes the movie multi-dimensional rather than just a lead-actor showcase. Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson provides a mysterious element as the dodgy CIA agent that recruits Seal and somehow always knows just when to make an appearance. Beyond Gleeson, Sarah Wright plays Seal’s wife, Lucy. In these kinds of movies, the wives tend to serve as a sort of connection to reality and reflection of the audience experience. When her husband drags her into his mixed-up situation, she’s reluctant, just like we are, wanting to know how things will be sorted out. When things go excessively well, she buys in as much as we do, despite knowing perfectly well that what comes up must come down.
As expected, the comedown serves as the inevitable result of the corners cut, the shady alliances christened, and the wrong people crossed. “American Made” reminds us that, as fun as it looks (let’s face it, organized crime is probably a blast), Barry Seal’s life is one to be examined, but not admired. The worst fate for Scorcese’s anti-heroes is a mundane life, one where they’re reduced to mediocrity. But the essence of “American Made” is that Barry Seal has circumstance imposed upon his relatively mundane life. His flaws as a regular person are amplified in his transition to irregularity, and that’s what makes the story so universal, catapulting “American Made” into the ranks of the best crime tragedies in recent memory.