Once upon a time, Tom Cruise was a fantastic character actor. Cruise would star in movies like “Born on the Fourth of July”, “Collateral”, or “Magnolia” and would do something he seemingly hasn’t done in approximately one decade. That something is, of course, called acting.
Thankfully, “American Made” is starring Tom Cruise and not “Tom Cruise.” His cocky smile, charm, and quick wit are all on display, but he not once leaps away from an explosion, jumps off a motorcycle, or does any of his patented running. It’s almost as if he’s committed to the character (gasp) and (double gasp) not interested in furthering the Tom Cruise Brand.
Oddly enough, Cruise’s brand is surely to jump leaps and bounds with critics as his portrayal of the greedy southerner Barry Seal is potentially going to get the attention of awards voters in a few months. Cruise is so good in “American Made” that he will make countless audiences root for a guy who would seemingly illegally smuggle his own mother over a few borders if it would earn a buck.
“American Made” is loosely based on the real life of Barry Seal, who flew commercial planes for TWA in the late 1970s. His flying skills and penchant for Cuban cigar smuggling gets the attention of CIA agent Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson). Seal begins smuggling rifles into Nicaragua to give to General Manuel Noriega’s contra fighters to help defeat the current Communist leadership.
Barry hides all of this from his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), and continues to pretend he’s flying for TWA. Once he decides that he’d like to make a little money on the side, Barry starts flying Medellin Cartel cocaine into the United States, after he drops off Russian AK-47s to the contras, of course.
Despite possessing so many bags of cash that he needs to bury several in his backyard, life quickly begins to spiral out of control for Barry. The FBI, ATF, DEA, IRS, pretty much any American law enforcement agency identified via acronym begins to investigate Barry.
If it sounds like it’s far-fetched and a complete work of fiction, well, it mostly is. Did Barry Seal really do all the insane things that “American Made” claims he did? Not so much. Gary Spinelli’s script makes Seal out to be some sort of sympathetic figure or, at the very least, a fool who couldn’t say no to the almighty dollar. He creates Seal as a nice guy you’d like to have a beer with, but possessing a shattered moral compass.
This is one of several things that makes “American Made” so surprising. Director Doug Liman essentially has a movie which has no action scenes and his main character is fairly despicable. However, Liman somehow makes it all exceptionally enjoyable and you want to spend time in this gross world.
There’s dark humor in nearly every moment and nary a scene falls flat or seems out of place. There’s an extended plot thread involving Barry’s brother in law, JB (Caleb Landry Jones, going as redneck as possible) that gets a bit too heavy. Other than that tiny nitpick, Liman makes all 117 minutes fully engrossing.
While Liman and Spinelli deserve some of the credit, if Tom Cruise doesn’t charm your pants off then “American Made” falls to pieces and becomes a two hour hate watch. By the time Cruise hops in the pilot seat and shoots off to Nicaragua, he’s completely washed away the stink of “The Mummy.”
Other than when Cruise was covered in makeup in “Tropic Thunder”, his performance as Barry Seal is the funniest of his career. He’s at levels of physical comedy unseen from him and it ranges from subtle facial movements to borderline pratfalls. Also, look closely at the credits to see who the Cessna stunt flyer was in “American Made” (hint: it’s Tom Cruise).
“American Made” is what we used to expect from a Tom Cruise movie. It’s entertaining, fun, zany, smart, and just an overall blast. By the time the credits roll, Liman’s clever direction and Cruise’s slick talking have conned you into thinking Barry Seal was a nice fella when he was actually a terrible criminal. When a movie about a sleazy guy pulls that trick off, you know that it’s great.