Is Tom Cruise still considered bankable in 2019 outside the Mission Impossible films? The relative box office failure of The Mummy and American Made in 2017 made it seem like Cruise had lost his touch, but while the Monsterverse entry was clearly a misfire, American Made sees the star at his best. Capably directed by Doug Liman, American Made casts Cruise as Barry Seal, an airline pilot who gets involved with drug smuggling. Liman’s film is in the vein of Goodfellas or Ted Demme’s Blow, a cautionary tale that’s brimming with enthusiasm for the details, true or false. Sequences such as Seal trying to navigate a too-short runway in a too heavy plane or a stomach-churning crash landing over a residential area are dynamically brought to life, and Cruise absolutely nails it as a cocky showman who realises he’s well out of his depth. American Made is a terrific film about crime and punishment, and never stops entertaining even as Seale’s life spirals out of control. And the politics, implicating several big names, are more direct than might be expected.
Some films are deliberately challenging, some meanings are proposed to be elusive; Olivier Assayas should offer a cash prize for anyone who can confidently synopsise his supernatural thriller Personal Shopper. Twilight fans with a crush on Kristen Stewart will get more than they bargain for in this strange story set in the world of high fashion. Stewart plays an intern in mourning for her twin, who has recently died. After an ectoplasm manifestation which looks straight out of Ghostbusters, Stewart is menaced an unknown assailant by phone, via a series of cryptic messages. Do ghosts use social media? Or it the man who attack her boss after her? A series of tense scenes further the story without ever explaining what’s happening, and scenes which feature an invisible ghost boggle the brain. Stewart is absolutely brilliant in this role, mixing movie-star looks like a fragile vulnerable character that generates huge involvement. If the climax doesn’t make sense, the coda further muddies the waters; Personal Shopping is a great, original film, just don’t ask what it means.
Sam Peckinpah’s career peaked with The Wild Bunch; while his later films display flashes of genius, his greatest work was probably in the late 1960’s. By 1975, alcohol and drugs were catching up with him, and the opportunity to direct a studio film like The Killer Elite came with conditions. Those expecting an over-the-top bloody spectacle will be disappointed, but there’s still meat on the bones. James Caan models a terrific wardrobe of turtle-neck sweaters and suede jackets as Mike, a CIA operative who is double-crossed by his partner George (Robert Duvall). George shoots Mike in the knee, retiring his friend, but Mike goes through a long and painful rehabilitation process and eventually puts together a team to seek revenge. The same year as French Connection II, The Killer Elite switches focus to cover the long route back that a driven individual might take; Caan does well with the physicality, and Peckinpah’s downbeat word-view is a good fit for the bigger-picture plotline about CIA departmental rivalry. The Killer Elite has never looked better than in Amazon’s spanking print; the finale on the deck of the Reserve Fleet in California is crisp and clear even when the switching of allegiances isn’t.