Movie reviews: In 'American Made,' Tom Cruise brings shades of 'Top Gun'
Published Friday, September 29, 2017 6:00AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, September 29, 2017 6:04AM EDT
AMERICAN MADE: 3 STARS
The War on Drugs is one of the longest battles in American history. In 1971 President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse "public enemy number one,” vowing combat against drug producers and dealers. Forty years and many billions of dollars later, the Global Commission on Drug Policy stated, "The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.”
The only winners in the drug wars appear to be filmmakers who have mined a rich vein of stories from the decades-long battle.
This weekend, Tom Cruise stars in the latest tale from the War on Drugs, “American Made,” the real-life story of Barry Seal, adrenaline junkie and TWA pilot. The story begins in 1978 with Seal mentally on autopilot and looking for thrills. Caught smuggling cigars into the United States, the CIA senses Seal’s potential and hires him to take reconnaissance photos of Soviet-backed insurgents in South America.
“The work is covert,” says his recruiter, Agent Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson). “If anyone finds out about it -- family, friends, your wife -- that would be a problem.”
What begins as a safe and profitable adventure takes a dangerous turn when Seal becomes a courier between the CIA and Panamanian CIA informant General Manuel Noriega. Next, he signs onto an even more dangerous assignment, running arms to the contras in Nicaragua in their battle against the communist Sandinistas.
“Is this legal?” he asks. ”It is if you do it for the good guys,” says his Agent Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson).
Seduced by the money and the excitement, he also takes gigs as a cocaine smuggler for the Medellin Cartel. “I’m working for the CIA, the DEA and Pablo Escobar,” he boasts. He sees himself as “just gringo who always delivers” but his convoluted work life and allegiances make him a person of interest to Escobar, the DEA, the FBI and even the White House.
Drug cartel stories are tailor-made for the movies. Populated by bigger-than-life characters like the Medellin Cartel members, the stories have it all—glamour, drama, moral ambiguity and the primal clash of good and evil. “American Made” has all that, although played in a lower key than movies like “Blow” or “Cocaine Cowboys.” It has a lighter touch. It’s not too violent and, oddly for a drug dealer movie, has no scenes where anyone actually samples the goods. The movie keeps things moving along at quite a clip, but it sheds next to no light on its characters, its go-go 80s setting or the political mess that turned into the Iran-Contra affair.
Echoes of “Top Gun” hang heavy over Cruise as cockpit king Seals. He’s all teeth and grins, a charmer who can talk his way through almost any situation. He has nerves of steel and high-flying greed, a combo that should give us a compelling anti-hero, but instead Cruise plays him as a decent guy who “didn’t ask enough questions.” Didn’t ask enough questions about the personal toll his work running guns and drugs for a cartel. Didn’t ask enough questions about human trafficking. He didn’t ask questions because he was greedy. He liked the suitcases of cash and fancy cars his job provided. If the movie allowed Cruise (or vice versa) to actually explore Barry’s dark side, the film might have delivered more of a punch.
There’s more character work in any episode of “Breaking Bad” or “Narcos” than the entire 115-minute running time of “American Made,” but Cruise’s movie does have a sense of humour about itself that makes for an amiable, if not memorable, watch.
VICTORIA AND ABDUL: 3 STARS
The opening title card of “Victoria & Abdul,” a new historical dramedy starring Judi Dench and Ali Fazal, states that the movie is “Based on real events… mostly.” What follows is a true-life tale that doesn’t let the facts get in the way of telling a good story.
Dench returns to her Oscar-nominated role of Queen Victoria. She is a frail older woman, ill of health and scheduled at society functions at a pace that would tire someone a third her age. It is her Golden Jubilee in 1887, an endless round of meetings and dinners.
As the Empress of India, the Queen is gifted with a special coin presented by Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), two young men brought in from the North Indian city of Agra for the occasion.
Both are given strict instructions: “The key to good service is standing still, moving backwards,” they’re told, “and don't ever look at her.” Of course Abdul catches her eye, otherwise there’d be no story.
“I thought the tall one was terribly handsome,” says the Queen as she requests that the young men become personal footman. It’s a move that causes consternation at the palace. Racism and jealousy rear their ugly heads as Abdul is given more and more responsibility, soon becoming her Munshi, a tutor who teaches her how to write and speak Urdu.
She sees him as a breath of fresh air from the “aristocratic fools” who jockey for position around her. She's lonely—"Everyone I've ever loved has died,” she says, “and I just go on and on"— and his chatty, amiable manner comforts her.
The staff and Victoria’s son, Bertie (Eddie Izzard), next in line to be King, want Abdul gone and look to get dirt on him. When the monarch gets wind of the palace skulduggery, she makes it clear that her confidant is not going anywhere.
“Victoria & Abdul” is based on a recently uncovered story. In the days following Victoria’s death, Bertie ordered all traces of her relationship with Abdul destroyed and had Abdul and his family deported back to India. It wasn’t until 100 years later when journalist Shrabani Basu dug deep and discovered previously unseen information that the story became public.
What could have been a fascinating look at Victoria at the height of her colonial power—she is 81, and 62 of those years were spent ruling over almost 1 billion citizens—is instead shaped into a lightweight crowd-pleaser and virtual remake of 1997’s “Mr. Brown.” In that film, Billy Connolly, played John Brown, a servant who provided comfort to Victoria (played again by Dench) creates a scandal that almost leads to monarchy crisis. “He’s the brown John Brown,” sneers Lady Churchill (Olivia Williams) in a nod to the sense of déjà vu that hangs over the proceedings.
The big difference between the two films is the underling role. Brown was clearly defined. The Scottish servant is strong-willed, a rebel with little respect for the propriety that surrounded Victoria’s every move. Abdul is less defined. He is unquestionably devoted to the Queen, but we don’t ever really learn why. Was he a social climber, a Rasputin or a truly dedicated acolyte? We’re led to believe the latter, but that doesn’t give Fazal much to work with other than his easygoing on-screen charm.
Not that “Victoria & Abdul” doesn’t have enjoyable elements. It mines humour from the ridiculous royal protocol. Queen Victoria eats quickly, and everyone else at an elaborate state dinner must keep pace because when she's done, they're done. It’s a funny scene, made more amusing by Dench’s skilful handling of the situation.
She is at times comedic and at times touching, often in the same scene. She is masterful as Victoria, a lioness in winter grasping for a last stab at happiness in a life filled with decorum and responsibility.
If the recent film “mother!” was an attempt, as one writer suggested, “to shock its audiences out of complacency,” “Victoria & Abdul” is an attempt to lull its audience into complacency.
OUR SOULS AT NIGHT: 3 ½ STARS
Two of the highest-flying stars of the 60s, 70s and 80s, film legends Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, reteam for the low-key “Our Souls at Night.” On screen they’ve played lovers in “The Chase,” “The Electric Horseman” and, most famously, in 1967’s “Barefoot in the Park.” That movie portrayed the first blushes of young love. In the new film, Fonda says, “we play old people love and old people sex.”
The screen legends play Louis and Addie. Long-time neighbours, both are widowers, living alone in homes that once brimmed with life and love. Lonely and alone, Addie goes next door with a proposal to a man she barely knows. “Would you be interested in coming to my house and sleeping with me?” she asks. “It’s not about sex, it’s about getting through the night.”
Their sleepovers begin innocently enough, just the sharing of some company and a mattress. As they get to know one another, their life histories are laid bare. Louis cheated on his wife, an extramarital affair that left a deep scar on his relationship with his daughter (Judy Greer). Addie’s life is complicated by the sudden appearance of her son Gene (Matthias Schoenaerts) who is in no shape to look after his son, seven-year-old Jamie (Iain Armitage). While Gene figures things out, Jamie moves in, completing the second-time-around family.
“Our Souls at Night” is a low-key movie about two people leading quiet lives. Louis and Addie are people you know, your grandparents, neighbours or elderly friends. Perhaps better looking grandparents, neighbours and elderly friends than we’re used to, but this is Redford and Fonda we’re talking about here. They are people just looking to make a connection, to spend their remaining days in the company of someone they love. “I just want to live out my day,” says Louis, “and then come home and tell you all about it at night.” It’s touching stuff, made more effective by the presence of the leads, actors we have literally grown up watching. They feel familiar, although a little more threadbare than we’ve seen before. Redford shuffles when he walks, Fonda is delicate, but as their relationship blooms, the colour returns to their cheeks and the chemistry we first saw fifty years ago kicks in. Their spark and naturalistic performances even help gloss over some of the more melodramatic elements of the story.