American Made (2017)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

It’s 1978, and Barry Seal is a pilot for TWA. He’s good at his job. Great at it, actually. Which is probably why he’s so agonizingly bored. Anyway, when a CIA agent approaches him in a hotel bar, and offers him the chance to fly over South America and take pictures of Communist Insurgents, he, of course, says “yes.” But it doesn’t take long for his knew life to get derailed. While flying over Colombia, he is approached by none other than Pablo Escobar, who offers to pay him a crap ton of money if only he’ll fly cocaine into the US. Seal, again, says “yes,” not seeming to know, or care, about the consequences. These consequences being too much money to possibly spend or hide, Nicaraguan rebels trying to kill you, and every single law enforcement agent in the country coming after your ass. Will he survive? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

American Made has a strong cast, a big budget, and a fascinating, fact-based story. All the ingredients for a great film are here. So why did I spend most of the film in a state of boredom? Well, part of it could be the fact that I saw this movie at a very late showing, and was extremely tired at the time. It’s certainly possible that that had an effect on my opinion. But what I really think caused my boredom, what I truly believe held this movie back, were its light-hearted tone, and bad characterization.

What I mean by this is, American Made is a comedy. Yes, it’s a story about drug dealers and CIA agents. Yes, it has violence and scenes of suspense in it. But, for the most part, all the high-stakes antics are played for laughs. We’re meant to find all the dangerous, ridiculous situations that Seal gets into as just that; ridiculous. In this way, it is similar to another, fact-based film, I Love You, Phillip Morris, which tells the true story of a con-man who managed to escape prison several times. In that film, the writers knew that if they tried to play the absurd things the character did straight, the audience wouldn’t buy it. So they made it a comedy. The filmmakers do that in American Made too, but what they don’t seem to realize is that their story is much, much darker than the one in I Love You, Phillip Morris. This is a story about Nicaraguan death squads, and drug dealers who kidnapped and murdered people’s families. And yet, despite all that, we’ve got brightly-colored cartoon exposition scenes, and a protagonist who cracks jokes, even when someone has knocked his teeth out, and is pointing a machine gun in his face. The fact that he, and by extension, the filmmakers, don’t take any of what’s happening seriously leads us, the audience, to not take it seriously either. Even with stuff that we should. It gets to the point where someone gets killed by a car bomb, and we’re meant to find it comical. The characters in this film are also kind of weak. Oh sure, they have personalities and voices. But we don’t know much about them. We don’t know anything about Seal’s wife, other than that she used to work at KFC. For that matter, we don’t really know anything about Seal, other than that he’s a gifted pilot. He’s also an extremely passive protagonist. Everything he does in this film is because someone else tells him to, unlike the real Barry Seal, who, in several cases, initiated the illegal acts he took part in. The best protagonists are the ones who are active; who drive the plot forward with their choices. American Made’s protagonist does make choices, but, for the most part, the choices get made for him, and you wind up caring about him less overall as a result.

Guys, if it sounds like I hated this film, I didn’t. I liked the story, and the cast, and I think it had a lot of potential. But the super silly tone held me back from taking it seriously, and the thin characterization kept me from caring. If you like Tom Cruise, maybe you should give it a watch. As for me, I have no desire to see it again.

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Collateral (2004)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views AreMyGame.

Max is a cab driver, saving up to start his own company. He knows LA like the back of his hand, and even though his job is fairly thankless, he takes pride in his work. One night, he picks up a gray-haired man named Vincent, who tells him, “I’ve got five stops to make. You get me to all of them on time, I’ll pay you $600.” Max agrees, and brings Vincent to his first stop. Everything seems fine, until a dead body falls on the cab, smashing the windshield to bits. Things get worse when Vincent returns, and reveals that not only did he kill the man, but he’s an assassin who’s been hired to take out 4 more targets. Now, if Max wants to survive, he’ll have to help Vincent evade capture, and finish his jobs, which means contributing to the deaths of four more people. Can he do it? Will he make it through the night? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out

Collateral is the definition of a well-made thriller. It’s suspenseful, superbly -acted (seriously, Jamie Foxx earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as Max) and very well-written. I’d actually like to take a minute to talk about the writing, because it is really, really good. Not only does every character have a distinct voice and backstory, the dialogue is really witty, and oddly thought-provoking. There are so many exchanges in this film that are funny, frightening and philosophical all at the same time that I’m honestly kind of surprised that Stuart Beattie, whom penned the script, didn’t get an Oscar nod. Like, in the scene right after Max learns that Vincent is a hit man, he’s freaking out, and Vincent starts talking about Rwanda. He tells Max how more people were killed at once there than in the past 50 years, and yet, he, Max, didn’t get upset when he heard about the genocide. He didn’t join the peace corps. He didn’t contribute to any charities. But now, when one fat guy dies in front of him, he turns into a bleeding heart? How hypocritical. That’s a brilliant exchange right there. It not only shows us how Vincent views morality, but it also gets us, the spectators, to think. It calls us out on our own hypocrisies, like how we care about some lives, but not about others. And the movie is full of awesome moments like that, where characters are talking about their pasts, or their morals, and it’s super engaging and funny. In one scene, Max asks Vincent, “You killed him?” to which Vincent responds, “No. I shot him. The bullets and the fall killed him.” And in another scene, Vincent has a gun pressed up against Max’s head, and forces him to tell his boss to “shove this yellow cab up your fat ass.” It’s wonderful.

If I have one complaint about Collateral, it’s the camerawork. It’s almost all hand-held, so the images are very shaky, and the shots are super noisy. If you don’t know what that last part means, “noise” is a film term for elements in cinematography that ruin an image, like lens flares, blurry lines, or pixels. Collateral’s director, Michael Mann, is infamous for not minding “noise” in his films. As such, a lot of his movies, even if they’re big-budget period pieces, like Public Enemies, feel like they’re shot on home video. Now, as annoying as I find shaky cam and lens flares, both actually kind of work for this movie. You’re telling a story that’s very gritty and real, and the sloppy-looking camerawork does kind of contribute to a sense of realism. Kind of. But in case you can’t get over the cinematography, the film’s gorgeous color palette more than makes up for it. Every image is black, contrasted with neon blues, greens or pinks; i.e. the color of LA at night. If, like me, you love films with saturated color schemes, which help create mood and atmosphere, you’re gonna love this movie. It is a feast for the eyes.

Guys, what can I say that hasn’t already been said? Collateral is a fast-paced, superbly acted, brilliantly-written thriller. I love it, and I’m sure you would to if you saw it. Don’t hesitate to give it a look.