Blu-ray Review: American Made

At 55 years old, Tom Cruise is still at the top of his game. Year after year he continues to put out blockbuster success after blockbuster success, with only one true recent misfire, which was last year’s okay, but nothing special remake of The Mummy – and even that made over $400 million worldwide thanks to Cruise’s name alone.

Now it’s been almost a decade since Cruise did a film based fully in reality (one could argue that 2012’s Rock of Ages is technically the real world with singing, and I wouldn’t really argue that; however, I’ll stick with 2008’s Valkyrie as the most obvious choice), so it’s great to see him step away from roles filled with the death-defying stunts and narrowly dodging bullets while barely escaping with his life, and into the role of a Barry Seal, a pilot turned CIA agent/drug smuggler, who often found himself caught in death-defying situations, while also narrowly dodging bullets and barely escaping with his life.

Okay, so American Made doesn’t sound like too much of a character departure for Cruise, but it is! While characters like Ethan Hunt and Jack Reacher are larger than life, leap out of an exploding building at the last moment type heroes based on fantasy, Barry Seal is a real person, who actually did fly secret missions for the CIA, while also smuggling drugs and weapons for the cartel at the same time. While watching Barry’s story unfold, it seems like it has to be a work of fiction that writer Gary Spinelli thought up while trying to come up with a unique espionage/cartel/gangster story; but it’s not – it’s all based on facts and Barry actually did all these things.

I mean, the story is “Based on a True Story,” which means that there are a certain amount of artistic liberties taken to help build characters, or form story arcs, or write dialogue between real people that couldn’t possibly be known verbatim, or even to merge multiple real characters into one single character on-screen to help keep things tighter, and easier to understand for audiences. But as a whole, American Made does a good job of getting facts out there quickly, keeping the story moving forward at a solid pace, while also making Barry and his constantly changing situation an intriguing, and often engrossing one.

Director Doug Liman (who directed Cruise in 2014 sci-fi thriller, Edge of Tomorrow) really doesn’t let up in this tale of a guy who just wanted to live life on the edge and provide for his family. Right out of the gate we see the mundane life Barry is living as a TWA pilot in 1978, making a little extra money on the side by smuggling a few small boxes of Cuban cigars in to the USA. From here, he’s quickly recruited by CIA Agent Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) to do some flyby reconnaissance in South America.

It all happens really quickly, but it doesn’t feel like we’re being rushed as viewers. This goes on throughout the film, skipping over years, but always feeling like a consistent story. Heading into the second act, we’re introduced to Barry recording videos and realize that it’s him telling us this story in 1986 while recording it with a camera. So from time to time we jump forward to 1986, usually as a segue to a bigger time jump, say from 1980 to 1982, or something along those lines.

The film is just under two-hours long, but it covers a lot of ground. I mean, a LOT of stuff happens in Barry’s life during this time, from running drugs for the Medellin Cartel (which was associated with Pablo Escobar, among others) to laundering money. It’s a story that seems like it couldn’t be plausible, and it’s all the more entertaining since we know right out of the gate that it is.

There are times when it would be nice to get to focus in on a certain part of this crazy time in Barry’s life, but it’s understandable that the idea is to show just how non-stop things were during this period, and how crazy things kept getting instead of slowing down and telling just a segment of the overall story. I get that, and in all honesty, the way Liman steers the film really works to get this done in an engaging and exciting manner.

Cruise is superb in the role of Barry Seal, truly helping to present the character as a larger than life being, while also keeping him grounded in reality. Barry is an incredibly charming guy in the movie, and Cruise plays that part wonderfully. You truly believe that Barry’s simply an ordinary man that found himself excelling in extraordinary situations, never looking to hit the brakes along the way and always looking forward.

While the story focuses on Barry, another integral character in the film is his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright). Wright does a great job playing off Cruise, as the two have a very natural chemistry on-screen, and while Barry likes to live dangerously on some level, it’s also clear that it’s Lucy and their children that help keep him somewhat cautious and focused. It’s also nice to see Wright get to help evolve Lucy into a full fledged character, and not just a cliché one-dimensional wife who is kept in the dark, all while simply going along with where the story takes her instead of actually being a key part of it.

American Made is an adrenaline rush of a movie, filled with lots of action, plenty of well-handled comedy, a solid dash of suspense, and a captivating, well-paced story. Cruise and Liman once again prove themselves to be a dynamic duo when working together, and hopefully with Cruise showing no signs of slowing down in the coming years, this won’t be the last time we see the two pair up.

The film has a great stylistic look to it that really shines in the Blu-ray transfer. The visuals look great regardless of if they’re supposed to look like they’re shot on VHS tape, or softer images, or vibrant. This isn’t meant to be an eye-popping movie in terms of visuals, but the tricks used consistently throughout all help tie the film together the way the director intended. The sound design is also spot on, with a great mix, sharp dialogue, and a great score and soundtrack that never do battle with the actors.

Special Features:

Cruise & Liman: A Conversation – This isn’t the first special feature on the disc, but it’s my favourite so I’m going to put it first. It’s roughly five and a half minutes in length, and is simply Cruise and Liman talking about working on the film together. But what’s so fun about it is how they tell stories about living together during shooting, and various fun tales that come from that. I won’t spoil any of the fun, but I do wish this conversation went on for another ten minutes or so, as these are the personal stories you never really get to hear about, and it’s quite fun to get to do so here.

American Storytellers – This feature is just under seven minutes in length and sees the cast and crew talking about developing Seal’s story into a movie, Cruise coming on board, and how Liman actually has some loose ties to the story as well.

In the Wings – This feature is six minutes in length and takes a look at some of the secondary characters in the movie.

Shooting American Made This feature is just four minutes in length, and focuses on various shooting locations for the movie, as well as some of the highlights and challenges that came along with them.

Flying High – This piece is just under five minutes in length and focuses on the piloting and aviation in the film. Cruise also talks about piloting the airplanes, as this is a guy who can never just take a backseat when it comes to a role, which is commendable.

The Real Barry Seal – This feature is just under six minutes in length, and delves more into the life of Barry Seal.

Deleted Scenes – There are ten minutes worth of deleted scenes here that can be watched with director’s commentary or not. Unfortunately, there’s no director’s commentary, as it would’ve been great to be able to listen to Cruise and Liman tell stories throughout the showing of the film.

Universal Pictures Presents American Made. Directed by: Doug Liman. Written by: Gary Spinelli. Starring: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, Jesse Plemons, Caleb Landry Jones. Running time: 115 Minutes. Rating: 14A. Released on Blu-ray: Jan. 2, 2018.

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