Hark to the tale of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) underachieving, high-dreaming commercial pilot who, in the mid ’70s, is approached by a shadowy (aren’t they all?) CIA agent (Domhnall Gleeson) to start doing a few odd jobs for The Company.
At first it’s pretty hair-raising but almost innocuous stuff, like snapping a few reconnaissance photos over particularly volatile patches of Central America. Then it’s running money to “friendly” figures like Panama’s Manuel Noriega. Before long it’s making nice with Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel. And then, almost before you know it, our man Barry is the de facto head of Air America Mark II, running guns, drugs, money, and Contra rebels in, out and across the USA, all at the behest of Uncle Sugar. The money is fantastic and the work is interesting, but how long before it all goes to hell in a handbasket?
We’ve seen this kind of story before – the unreliable, garrulous narrator, the guided tour through the underworld, the colourful characters, the dizzying highs, the inevitable fall from grace. Scorsese’s Goodfellas is the most obvious and best example of the breed, but consider also Lord of War and Blow. American Made might not be as fine a film as Goodfellas (to be fair, few are), but it’s still a propulsively entertaining ride through the underbelly of America, thanks to deft, energetic direction from Doug Liman, and a charismatic, layered performance from the Cruiser.
It’s sometimes easy – and encouraged – to forget what a committed performer Cruise is, especially with dross like The Mummy still in the rear view mirror, but he gives a great turn here as the affable, “aw shucks” Seal, whose journey into the dark heart of American foreign policy is made palatable by Cruise’s easy charm. As Seal’s exploits get weirder, the crimes get bigger, and the money begins to pile up (literally – one of Seal’s logistical problems is trying to hide literal bales of cash) to the point where it beggars belief, it’s Cruise’s to-camera narration – a conceit that comes to make sense in the final stretch of the film – and “I know, right?” attitude that helps us go along with even the most outrageous story elements, such as when Seal is running a training camp for Contra guerrillas on his rural property at the behest of the CIA.
That, more than anything else, is Seal’s function as a character in his own story – to put a human face on the almost unbelievable machinations of the secret state, and to guide us through the murky nexus where crime, espionage, politics and business commingle. On the surface, American Made is the story of an individual, but in its heart it’s really about these titanic forces, how they play against – and with – each other, and what happens to the people caught in their gravity.
Of course, America Made is a “print the legend” affair, and while Seal’s career as a drug runner is well documented, his connections with the US intelligence community are far more dubious. Liman and screenwriter Gary Spinelli know which version of events makes for a better story, though, so it’s best not to get too caught up in notions of what is verifiable – or even plausible – as Seal’s exploits take him right into the nerve centre of ’80s America’s “war on drugs” and the Iran-Contra scandal, complete with close encounters with Oliver North and other key players.
Inevitably the wheels come off, of course. Will it be due to Seal’s ne’er-do-well brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones doing another of his trademark dirtbags), who just can’t seem to keep a lid on the good deal Seal has engineered for his family and friends? Or will Jesse Plemons’ small town sheriff finally twig that the sheer amount of money Seal is bringing into their little burg is a bit beyond the pale? Or will the Medellins or the Company simply remove the shoot-from-the-hip Seal in the most efficient and ruthless manner possible? That would be telling (then again, so would a quick Google search for the real life Barry Seal) but, as in so many things, it’s the journey, not the destination.
And American Made is quite a journey. There’s a deep cynicism at the heart of Liman’s film even when it’s being irresistably entertaining, a mistrust of the American systems of both government and commerce – and particularly the ways in which they interact – that colours the proceedings, giving a bitter edge to even the most madcap of Seal’s adventures, and the inevitability of his fate is a crucial part of the equation. Ultimately, American Made is about how individuals are used and abused by monolithic, complex systems of power and money, disguised as a wild ride with the cocaine cowboys of Reagan’s America. For all his bravado and daring, his cocksure charm and can-do attitude, Cruise’s Barry Seal is just one more asset among millions, and his rugged individualism can’t save him from the scrapheap when he’s outlived his usefulness.
The world never feels under threat in The Mummy, no matter how often the film tries to tell us it is. The dangers never feel palpable, the key characters never in any peril. What is in danger, however, is Universal’s much-ballyhooed Dark Universe project; with this being the tone-setting opening gambit for their Universal Monsters shared universe, you wouldn’t hold out much hope for the future.
The problem is genre; The Mummy isn’t a horror movie, but an action movie, and one in the globe-trotting mode that leading man Tom Cruise has pretty much perfected in the Mission: Impossible series. Indeed, if you ever wanted to see Ethan Hunt take on supernatural evil, that’s basically what you get here. The Cruiser is Nick Morton, a cross between a special forces soldier and Indiana Jones, who we meet going about some tomb raiding in Iraq along with his sidekick, Sergeant Chris Vail (Jake Johnson, almost screaming to be heard over Cruise’s attention-hogging charisma). Uncovering an ancient Egyptian tomb (in Iraq! It’s explained poorly) sets in motion a series of events that unleashes the evil of The Mummy (Sofia Boutella) via that actually quite impressive plane crash set piece you’ve seen on every trailer and TV spot.
The only survivor of the crash is archaeologist and former paramour of the ever-virile Nick, Dr. Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis). But don’t you fret! Nick is not dead for long (not a spoiler, folks – it’s in the trailer) and soon discovers that he is now magically linked to the titular menace, formerly Princess Ahmanet, who was mummified alive back in the day for regicide and now wants to rule the world with all the powers of darkness at her comma- look, you get it. From there it’s basically in Cruise control, with all the running, jumping, exploding, and can-do determination you’ve come to expect – which sits uneasily in a story basically about a man fighting for his soul against an all-enveloping evil.
It’s low stakes stuff, and we never think for a second that anything is really at risk, be that specific characters or the world in general. The supernatural elements are all just window dressing, never feeling as unearthly or eldritch as they should; it’s just CGI spectacle piled upon CGI spectacle, with armies of extras falling to data-farmed critters to little emotional or visceral effect. Frankly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer handled its apocalypses with more aplomb 20 years ago, and they played half of ’em for laughs.
Of course, the ’99 version of The Mummy was a big CGI actioner for the most part, too, but its success was largely down to the fact that it’d been a long time between Indiana Jones movies, and Brendan Fraser was the man who cameth at that particular hour. Cruise cometh every year, and there’s little to differentiate this effort from his other star vehicles.
There is interesting stuff happening in the margins, to be fair. Russell Crowe is clearly having a ball as Dr Henry Jekyll (yes, that one), head of a shadowy international organisation tasked with investigating and defeating supernatural threats, and his lab is full of Easter eggs that old horror heads will get a rill of pleasure at seeing. Still, it’s a problem when the best part of your film is the connective tissue shoehorned in to set up your shared universe, even when that connective tissue gets to trot out his best cockney accent when his other persona begins to take hold.
Sofia Boutella gives it her all, and certainly looks the business – the design of Ahmanet is pretty great all the way through, from her weirdly-jointed, cadaverous first appearance to her double-pupiled, tattooed later form. We’re never called upon to empathise with her, though, and that’s a failing. The Universal Monster flicks have always presented their villains as somewhat tragic figures: think of the Monster’s loneliness and confusion, the Wolf Man’s helplessness in the face of his curse, Dracula’s yearning. There’s a brief bit of lip service to that here in Ahmanet’s backstory (she was passed over for the throne in favour of an infant son) but the film never really grapples with the idea that she’s a victim of patriarchal forces – hardly surprising in a film that largely sidelines its other main female character as well.
Still, that’s just subtext – more importantly, the film fails as just basic text. Ultimately, The Mummy feels like a missed opportunity. We were promised a big budget, audience friendly horror adventure; we got Knight and Day with an effects budget. Bill Condon’s mooted Bride of Frankenstein redux wants to be flat-out amazing – otherwise the Dark Universe is dead on arrival.