Review of “American Made”

It’s the late 1970’s and Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is a pilot for Trans World Airlines. He’s bored by the daily grind of flying from one city to the next so he likes to pull stunts that shake up the passengers and his co-pilot. One day while laid over in yet another city and another hotel, Barry is approached by Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) with an opportunity: Own your own business and fly reconnaissance missions in Central America for the CIA. Seal’s photos are appreciated by Schafer and his bosses and they decide to add runs to Nicaragua for Seal to give Manuel Noriega payoffs in exchange for his intelligence on communist rebels. Seal’s flights in and out of Central America attract the attention of a cocaine smuggling cartel that includes Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia). The cartel wants Seal to fly their product into America on his return trips. In exchange they will pay him enormous sums of cash. The CIA turns a blind eye to Seal’s work for the cartel but the Drug Enforcement Agency tries to shut him down so Schafer moves Seal, his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) and their kids to a small town in Arkansas. There they set Seal up with his own airport and thousands of acres of undeveloped land surrounding it. Soon the CIA wants Seal to ferry Contras into the US for training and transporting thousands of guns for their insurrection against the communist government of Nicaragua. Barry Seal is playing both sides in a dangerous, high stakes game that could lead to a great deal of death and destruction. If only he had listened to Nancy Reagan and just said “No!”

“American Made” follows the adventures of Barry Seal and his dealings with the CIA, a major drug cartel and the Contras of Nicaragua. It is a story of patriotism, capitalism and the fight against communism. It’s a story of hubris and well-informed stupidity. It is also a study in not learning from history and being doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. In other words, “American Made” is about what’s going on right now. It is an entertaining movie that takes a true story and almost makes you hope Barry Seal somehow gets away with everything he’s doing and lives happily ever after with his wife and kids under a new identity in a small town staying under the radar. Sadly, real life rarely works out fairly.

I really enjoyed “American Made” and the performance of Tom Cruise as the devil-may-care Barry Seal. This is the kind of role Cruise can sink his teeth into; creating a nuanced and complicated character that is able to ride the line between hero and villain. Nothing Seal does after about the first five minutes of the movie is remotely legal, even if he is doing it for the US government; but Cruise makes Seal such a likable rogue you can’t help but hope he succeeds (check Wikipedia to find out how things turned out for Seal). Unlike the character he played in “The Mummy,” Cruise is able to find the right balance of caring husband/father and gun/drug-running scumbag. He’s the kind of guy you’d like to have a few beers with and be enthralled by his stories. You’d never know if he was lying to you but Seal (as played by Cruise) is so charming and entertaining you wouldn’t care. Barry Seal is probably Cruise’ best performance in the last 20 years.

Domhnall Gleeson is also terrific as CIA operative Monty Schafer. A brilliant combination of best friend, kindly mentor and threatening bureaucrat, Gleeson gives Schafer just the right mix to make him interesting to watch since you are never quite sure which side of his personality will show up. Gleeson is woefully underused in the role. While it would have never happened in real life it would have been great to see Schafer join Seal on a trip to Nicaragua and experience life in the field for once.

While “American Made” is extremely entertaining the story is also ultimately infuriating. Knowing how things turn out for the CIA operation and the eventual creation of the Iran/Contra plan that tainted President Reagan’s legacy and wound up exposing the extent of the intelligence agency’s involvement in drug running, money laundering and arms dealing, watching it all unfold onscreen and seeing how there were numerous opportunities to stop it makes you wonder just how smart the people running the darker corners of the government are. It reminds me of the new PBS documentary on the Vietnam War from Ken Burns. In the second episode there are at least two, possibly three, opportunities for America to pull out of Vietnam; but the fear of Communism and the desire of President Kennedy to get reelected proved to be more powerful than common sense. While I’m no student of history, there are probably more examples of obvious signs that should have been heeded to prevent catastrophe and failure that were ignored. Apparently tunnel vision is a very real and dangerous thing.

“American Made” is rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity. The nudity consists mostly of women in lingerie and Tom Cruise’ bare backside he flashes at his family as a joke. We see a couple of sex scenes but they are very mild and brief. Foul language is common throughout the film.

On numerous occasions I have referred to Tom Cruise as a “tool” for his behavior on the Today Show towards Matt Lauer and his association with the Church of Scientology and I maintain that opinion; however, I am also of the opinion that, if given the right role, Cruise is one of the best actors in the world. In “American Made,” Cruise is in the right role. While Barry Seal may have been a dumpy man way in over his head, Cruise makes him a charismatic rebel that almost pulls off a masterful plan to get rich beyond anyone’s dreams. It may be a perversion of the American Dream but Seal, as played by Cruise, makes it look attainable and worth the risk.

“American Made” gets five stars.

A long-gestating sequel, a high-altitude adventure and animated juvenile equines debut on screens this week. I’ll see and review one of the following:

Blade Runner 2049—

The Mountain Between Us—

My Little Pony—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan. Listen to The Fractured Frame podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play and anywhere you get podcasts. Send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “The Mummy”

Nick Morton and Chris Vail (Tom Cruise and Jake Johnson) are Army recon soldiers that are supposed to be scouting for insurgents but have decided to go on a search for antiquities they can steal and sell on the black market. While scouting a small town in Iraq they are attacked by insurgents and Chris calls in a drone strike. The missiles drive away the enemy fighters and open a hole in the ground showing a massive chamber with what appear to be Egyptian carvings and artifacts. Archeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) is called in to investigate. Nick, Chris and Jenny all repel into the cavern and find it stuffed with Egyptian statues and hieroglyphics which is unusual since they are 1000 miles away from Egypt. Reading the hieroglyphs and examining the statuary, Jenny realizes this isn’t a tomb but a prison for whoever is buried there. At the bottom of a pool of mercury is the sarcophagus of Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella). Princess Ahmanet was next in line to be ruler of Egypt centuries earlier but her father’s second wife had a male baby making him the next in line for the throne. Making a deal with the god of death Set, Ahmanet killed her father, his wife and their baby and prepared to sacrifice her lover so Set could use him as a receptacle and walk the Earth once again where he and Ahmanet would rule for eternity. Her father’s servants stopped the sacrifice and captured Ahmanet, mummifying her alive and burying her in that pit far from Egypt. The markings on the chain around the pool show anyone that exhumes the princess is cursed. Never one to believe in such things, Nick breaks the chain and the sarcophagus rises from the mercury. While flying the sarcophagus to London a flock of crows crash into the plane and cause it to crash. Nick puts a parachute on Jenny and forces her off the plane. It crashes and kills everyone else on board…except for Nick who wakes up in a body bag in a morgue. Surprised to see him alive, Jenny introduces Nick to her boss Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) who explains Jenny works for his organization that seeks out and attempts to contain or destroy the monsters that roam the Earth, Princess Ahmanet is one of those monsters and Nick’s actions in the chamber has cursed him to be the new vessel for Set.

I left out a great deal in this plot synopsis such as Vail being bitten by a large insect in the chamber and becoming an undead slave of Ahmanet’s, how Ahmanet actually sucks the life out of victims to rebuild her decayed body and the various artifacts in Dr. Jekyll’s lab that suggest the other monsters coming to Universal’s Dark Universe. There’s a great deal going on in “The Mummy” and much of it is noisy filler to get from one heavily CGI action set piece to another. Is it a good movie? No but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it.

“The Mummy” is the modern version of a popcorn movie. The kind of film that doesn’t have much of a reason to exist except to let you forget what’s going on in the outside world and just turn off your brain for a couple of hours. The characters are largely forgettable, the story is frequently incoherent and the resolution is about as surprising as starting your car (although I have owned cars where it frequently surprised me both by starting and not starting).

It could have been much more interesting. For instance, it won’t surprise anyone that Tom Cruise’s Nick is the hero of the film. While his character is introduced as someone that is morally questionable, once the weirdness starts he takes on the very familiar role as a good guy with a few minor and unconvincing attempts to suggest otherwise. Since “The Mummy” is the first of a series of monster movies, why not make Nick the King of the Monsters. Not Godzilla but the leader of the Universal classic monsters this film is meant to anchor: Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, Bride of Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Gill Man (or Creature from the Black Lagoon if you prefer) and the Invisible Man. Nick, who doesn’t leave the film the same as when it started, could be the leader of the group and try to establish a worldwide syndicate of evil with all these creatures. Instead, Nick is a monster with a heart of gold, keeping Cruise as a lovable hero that sacrifices his humanity for the greater good. It might have worked with a character that was more predictably selfish throughout the movie but Cruise is constantly putting himself in harm’s way to save the girl or stop the monster or whatever. His actions late in the film don’t really come across as a surprise as we already know Nick is deep down a really good person that maybe had to bend and break the rules on occasion to make enough money to take care of his sick mother (we don’t know why Nick is stealing and selling antiquities as that isn’t explained in the film). Complicating Nick more would have gone a long way to making his choices more surprising and making the story more interesting.

The story is merely a scaffold to get us from one action scene to the next. Whether the cast is running from a destructive sandstorm in downtown London or fighting to escape Ahmanet’s skeletal soldiers, the script is light on dialog and heavy on CGI monsters and various crashes. Russell Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll gets the unenviable task of being Mr. Exposition. His character, either in voiceover or on screen, explains pretty much everything going on in the movie. From the life and death of Ahmanet to the existence of his monster squad, Crowe is responsible for filling in the audience. For an actor that has won an Oscar and performed in countless dramatic films, this is really a big step down in quality. You can’t help but feel like Crowe took the part for the paycheck and for the possibility of fairly steady work for the next decade if all these monster movies get made (I wouldn’t bet on that happening). He only gets turned loose when Mr. Hyde comes out to play and that isn’t often enough or long enough.

Despite all the problems, if you can just let the movie wash over you like a warm ocean wave it has a fair amount of entertainment leaking out of it. Even with the abundant CGI, the action scenes are for the most part pretty good. While Tom Cruise running in his movies has become something of a joke (you could probably edit together all his running scenes into a feature length movie), Cruise still looks amazing at 55 and did most of his own stunts on this film as he does on his others. The interaction of the characters also delivers some surprising laughs. Jake Johnson is underutilized but pretty terrific as Chris Vail. The early scene where he and Cruise are running from the insurgents is punctuated with a soundtrack of Johnson’s yelling at Cruise about getting him into this mess. Cruise and Wallis have some nice scenes as Nick and Jenny verbally spar with one another over a night they spent together. There are small moments of humanity and humor that are sprinkled into the film and they occasionally manage to break through and provide some entertaining oases in what is otherwise a desert of burning sand.

“The Mummy” is rated PG-13 for violence, action and scary images, some suggestive content and partial nudity. There are various scenes where characters are shown being shot. Blood is minimal. Various fights break out where characters are thrown around a room. There is a plane crash scene that could prove very intense to someone afraid of flying. Ahmanet is shown sucking the life out of several characters and they fall to the ground as withered husks but come back to life as her zombie slaves on her command. Other dead bodies also come to life at her command, many of these skeletal. A couple is shown looking like they are about to make love. Ahmanet is shown nude but in shadow with very little identifiable except for her butt cleavage. Foul language is minimal.

“The Mummy” is supposed to be the kickoff of a franchise of monster movies; but so was the 2004 film “Van Helsing.” That movie was supposed to anchor a shared universe of films with spinoffs including video games, novels and theme parks. The tepid critical reception and less than impressive box office put a stake in the heart of those plans. Now, Universal Studios is trying again to make its stable of monsters a money machine. Early domestic projections put the opening weekend receipts for “The Mummy” at a disappointing $30-million. While the film has opened big in foreign markets it will have to do really impressive numbers overseas for the Dark Universe to have any life, otherwise it will be as dead as a decapitated vampire. While it may not be the greatest monster movie of all time, “The Mummy” isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen. Not a ringing endorsement and maybe they will figure out a way to salvage the franchise by the next film. Who knows?

“The Mummy” gets three stars out of five.

This week I’ll be reviewing “Rough Night” for WIMZ.com.

For this webpage I’ll be reviewing one of the following:

47 Meters Down—

All Eyez on Me—

Cars 3—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Review of “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”

IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is tracking a worldwide terrorist organization called the Syndicate. He believes they are responsible for political assassinations around the world that all looked like tragic accidents. Each of these acts also led to political upheaval in the countries where they occurred. CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) believes Hunt is creating conspiracies in his mind and wants the IMF defunded and absorbed into his agency and convinces a Senate subcommittee. Agent William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) now works directly under Director Hunley but still tries to protect and help Hunt where he can. Hunt is captured by the Syndicate; but just before he’s going to be tortured by Janik “Bone Doctor” Vinter (Jens Hulten), Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) helps to kill the guards watching him and set him free. Ilsa appears to be a deep-cover agent working within the Syndicate for another intelligence agency. She stays behind to protect her cover. Hunt contacts Brandt to tell him what he’s discovered and is informed the IMF is no more. Hunt decides to stay in the field despite now being declared a target of the CIA. Hunt covertly contacts electronic intelligence expert Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) to help him track down the leader of the Syndicate: A man he’s only seen once killing an innocent woman. The chase will lead Hunt, Ilsa, Brandt, Dunn and fellow agent Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) around the world in an effort to take down a terrorist group that seems to have eyes, ears and assassins everywhere.

“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” has the slick and polished look of the most recent “James Bond” movies but has a decidedly lighter tone. While the fate of the world is equally at risk in this film series based on the TV show that ran 1966-1973, the characters are allowed to make a degree of fun of the situation that Bond is rarely allowed. While Bond is a lone figure with minimal support from his agency, Ethan Hunt is part of a larger and much more active ensemble. Hunt is frequently saved by one of his fellow agents, either directly or remotely, setting this view of espionage apart from its British counterpart. Each approach has its merits and the M:I series gets a bit more narrative mileage from the comradery of its characters.

Much has been made from the well-publicized stunt of strapping Tom Cruise to the side of a plane and filming him as it took off. The advertising for the film certainly didn’t bury the lead as this is the first scene in the movie. While it is probably the biggest stunt in the film, there are plenty more that occupy a great deal of the film’s over two hour running time. Whether sliding down a rope from the roof of the Vienna Opera House or holding his breath for six minutes to film an underwater scene in one take, Cruise delivers big thrills at great personal risk to himself and his multimillion dollar paychecks.

Whether the acting is any good is kind of beside the point in “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” but it is good. The entire cast is spot on with particular praise for Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust. Without giving too much away, her loyalties are always in doubt as she never plays her role with too many clues as to which way she might go. She also looks good in a silky yellow dress as she prepares to carry out an assassination. Ferguson is also adept at physical stunts, performing more than a few wild and vicious moves.

Simon Pegg is always reliable for some lighter moments as tech genius Benji Dunn; but these lighter moments are actually a set up for some dark times near the end of the film. Audiences don’t like seeing the smart, friendly characters face mortal danger. It gives us even more stress than when we watch the characters that we expect to be at the edge of death. We have learned Ethan Hunt can extract himself from every situation; but Benji is far more adept at hacking a security system, not beating up a security guard. After all, his name is Benji…like the dog.

Alec Baldwin also provides a secondary heavy that is almost as detestable as the leader of the Syndicate. Baldwin’s CIA Director Hunley shares many attributes with Baldwin’s “30 Rock” character Jack Donaghy: Both are decisive, ruthless and like to talk in a low growl when they are making a point. Baldwin doesn’t have that much screen time but he uses it to full effect. Hunley is portrayed as a bit of blowhard that talks a good game but has trouble delivering what he promises. Baldwin tackles the role with an intensity that says Hunley might be a bit of a braggart but he means business. It’s a very good performance.

If there’s anything I can complain about in “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” it’s the omnipotent villain trope that has played a part in nearly all this series. The Syndicate seems to be everywhere and always prepared no matter what Hunt or his colleagues do. The story elements seem to require someone on the inside of the CIA and IMF in order to be as well informed as they appear. I guess this would be a spoiler so prepare yourself: No one is exposed as working with the bad guys. A couple of red herrings are dropped here and there but none of them ever converts into a double agent. The leader of the Syndicate is supposed to be the product of a friendly government’s intelligence agency that goes rogue and creates his own organization to commit chaos around the world. It would seem that he is far better trained than any of the people trying to stop him as his presence is unknown to every other spy agency in the world. It’s all a bit too neat and tidy to occur in a world where every email, phone call and Internet search is collected by one organization or another for analysis. I would hope someone sifting through all that metadata would notice something that would tip off the CIA. I suppose this is yet another example of me thinking too much about a movie plot but it always strikes me as odd when a bad guy can gather so much material and so many operatives and fly completely under the radar.

All in all, this is a minor complaint as everything that is good about “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” far outweighs the bad. From the cinematography to the action to the interplay between the characters to most of the story, the film is a huge love letter to fans of the series.

“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” is rated PG-13 for sequences of action & violence and brief partial nudity. There are several fist fights, a knife fight, car chases, car wrecks, motorcycle chases, motorcycle wrecks and shootings in the film. There is far more blood in the trailer for the new “Hitman” film than there is in this entire movie. The brief partial nudity is so brief and partial I’m surprised it was mentioned. It is the back of a woman as she takes off some wet clothes and puts on dry clothes. Foul language is brief and scattered.

“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” opened at number one at the box office but with the lowest opening of any of the previous four films. Some news stories attribute this to the bad publicity Cruise received from the HBO documentary on Scientology. That seems unlikely. Perhaps the public is just tired of big budget, big action flicks; especially the fifth in a series. Aside from strapping Cruise to the side of a plane (that everyone with an Internet connection could see as many times as they wanted), what was really different about this version of M:I? The answer is nothing. This is a really well done version of the thing we’ve seen four times before. If people decide not to go should we really be that surprised?

The film is doing well worldwide so we can expect a sixth M:I to be released in two or three years as Cruise has already agreed to star in it. If the studio and Cruise don’t mind a little free and unwanted advice, may I suggest you figure out some twist or variation on the spy genre that will surprise people and drive them to tell their friends about what a unique experience the next M:I is. Otherwise, even the rest of the world may start staying home.

“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” gets five stars.

Two new films open this week and I’ll see at least one of them.

Fantastic Four—

The Gift—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.