Doug Liman might not be a household name to many but he’s been quietly going about his business making movies like The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow, two of the best action movies from the last few decades. He re-teamed Tom Cruise for American Made, the real-life story of Barry Seal, a pilot employed by the CIA to fly recon missions in Central America. He ends up playing one side against the other when he also starts running drugs for the Medellin cartel.
American Made is a super-slick comedy thriller that breezes along on the megastar charisma of Cruise, who is obviously enjoying the hell out of the role. Seal’s exploits are the dark side of the American Dream, and if you like movies like this, you should definitely check out the following:
1. Lord of War
Switch out drugs for guns and you basically have Lord of War, Andrew Niccol’s flashy examination of the global trade in deadly weapons. Nicolas Cage is surprisingly restrained as Yuri Orlov, an opportunist who starts a career in gunrunning to make his fortune. His exploits take him on a globe-trotting adventure, pursued by an intrepid Interpol agent played by Ethan Hawke.
Lord of War pulls off a delicate balancing act, condemning the illegal arms trade while also offering riotous entertainment. Niccol serves up a fine cocktail of guns, explosions, fast planes and deadly situations for our amoral protagonist.
2. Catch Me If You Can
Steven Spielberg’s bubbly jet-setting caper is another true crime story, charting the exploits of Frank Abagnale, the teenager who pulled off a variety of scams while posing as a doctor, a lawyer and an airline pilot in the ’60s.
Leonardo DiCaprio is superb as the likeable young conman, matched by Tom Hanks as the devoted FBI agent trying to track him down. Christopher Walken received only the second Oscar nomination of his career for his terrific performance as Abagnale’s hard-working father.
Spielberg directs this light-hearted tale with a real spring in his step, almost as if it were a palate-cleanser after several darker, more serious works. With Spielberg’s craft, impeccable period detail and John Williams’ jazzy score, Catch Me if You Can is effortlessly entertaining.
3. American Animals
Bart Layton takes a darker, grittier approach to a true-crime tale in American Animals. It is the story of four students who hatch a plan to steal a collection of rare books from their university library. Despite their carefully laid plans, the unlikely heist predictably goes awry.
Layton takes the unusual approach of intercutting the action with interviews with the real people involved, giving the film a documentary feel. Of his young cast, fearless up-and-comer Barry Keoghan stands out as the instigator of the botched robbery.
It’s a bold and impressive sophomore effort from British filmmaker Layton, who brings a clear-eyed outsider perspective to the story. He’s also concerned with social issues such as peer pressure and toxic masculinity, which makes American Animals richer in texture than your average crime flick.
4. The Mule
There is more drug smuggling going on in The Mule, Clint Eastwood’s low-key yet charming crime drama based on the real-life story of “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-year-old Drug Mule”.
Eastwood stars as Earl Stone a cantankerous eighty-something horticulturist. Estranged from his family and fallen on hard times, he starts running packages for a Mexican cartel to make some extra cash. They think he is the perfect candidate for the job due to his advanced age and spotless driving record, but the DEA is closing in..
The Mule is an entertaining, old-fashioned film directed with Eastwood’s usual efficient style, mixing mild danger with a few gentle chuckles as we follow Earl’s journey. Eastwood the actor brings his familiar crotchety charisma to the lead part. He isn’t really playing Earl, he’s playing Clint Eastwood, just as he has with every role for the past sixty years – and we’re totally OK with that. Bradley Cooper also stars as the sympathetic DEA agent on his tail.
5. The Wolf Of Wall Street
Much like American Made, Martin Scorsese takes a glamorous approach to criminality in his epic biography of Jordan Belfort. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the unscrupulous broker who took on Wall Street and made millions through corrupt practices, all on a hard diet of drugs, booze and hookers.
Nothing exceeds like excess, and The Wolf of Wall Street is a whole lot of movie. Scorsese matches the hedonism of the story with a three-hour blow-out of master filmmaking, great tunes, debauched set pieces, massive performances and midget abuse.
DiCaprio gives a performance of scenery-chewing prowess, forming a demented duo with Jonah Hill, while Margot Robbie and Kyle Chandler bring some normality to the proceedings. Matthew McConaughey shows up for about 10 minutes, beats his chest and almost walks off with the whole movie. Some may suspect that Scorsese is a little too in awe of Belfort and his accomplices for comfort, but there is no denying this is the director working close to his best.
If there is a recurring theme on this list, it’s that anyone can go a long way if they are prepared to combine American go-getting spirit with breaking a few laws. The same goes for Ted Demme’s Blow, the true story of George Jung, the man who established America’s cocaine market in the ‘70s with a little help from a guy called Pablo Escobar.
Take a little Goodfellas and add a lot of Boogie Nights and you have the style of this rise-and-fall story, which intoxicates us with luxury, thrills and excess in the first half before putting us through the wringer in the second.
Johnny Depp in his prime stars as Jung, matched for gorgeousness by Penelope Cruz. The colourful cast also includes Paul “Pee Wee” Reubens and Ray Liotta, who completes the Goodfellas connection. Demme does his best Scorsese impression, ladling on the style and packing the soundtrack with wall-to-wall rock classics.
7. The Infiltrator
We wrap up this list with The Infiltrator, another movie about drug cartels and the men who get involved with them, with often deadly results. This time we are on the side of law and order, following a U.S customs agent going undercover to expose a massive money-laundering operation run by Pablo Escobar.
A post-Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston brings his usual craggy intensity to the role of Robert Mazur, the man who infiltrated the cartel and lived to tell the tale. He teams up with John Leguizamo at the head of a strong cast that also includes Diane Kruger, Benjamin Bratt and Jason Isaacs.
Brad Furman competently directs this compelling true-life crime thriller. It is pretty routine stuff with few surprises, but the strength of the story still makes it a gripping watch.