With his second leading vehicle this year after the uneven “Mummy” reboot, Tom Cruise uses his star wattage (and underrated acting chops) to great effect in the fast-paced and fun-as-hell “American Made,” an action-filled crime drama recounting the improbable true story of TWA pilot turned CIA operative Barry Seal.
Also with his second film this year following the nail-biting war thriller, “The Wall,” filmmaker Doug Liman returns to the unique mixture of action, drama and comedy that worked so well for him in previous works like “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “Edge of Tomorrow,” and his tried-and-true formula once again proves a winner. Boasting a soaring script that delivers the admittedly convoluted story in easily digestible and broadly appealing form, stellar cinematography that captures everything from the 70s and 80s setting to the globe-spanning locales with accuracy and immediacy, and featuring one of the best Tom Cruise performances of recent memory, “American Made” is a wickedly entertaining rags-to-riches true tale told with flair.
Recounting his incredible story through amusing home video testimonials, “American Made,” starts out in the early 70s, when Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), a Baton Rouge-based TWA pilot and family man, begins smuggling Cuban cigars and other minor contraband into the United States on returning international flights. This side hustle catches the attention of CIA agent Monty Schafer (Domnhall Gleeson), who uses the intel to manipulate Barry into spearheading a much different operation: helping the government surveil communist activities in Central America.
Despite the reservations of Barry and his Southern Belle wife Lucy (Sarah Wright), Seal agrees to the clandestine mission, which requires packing up his life in Baton Rouge and moving the family to the backwoods locale of Mena, Arkansas. But what begins as a government-sanctioned surveillance mission soon spirals into a massive gunrunning operation, with Barry outfitting the Nicaraguan freedom fighters with AK-47s to use against the Sandinistas. In the process of transporting the guns to Central America, Barry is approached by Medellin Cartel kingpins Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia) about smuggling their cocaine into the States, and before he knows it, he’s a millionaire many times over.
As Seal’s smuggling operation ramps up to a ridiculous degree, his CIA mission grows increasingly complicated, and before long, every law enforcement agency in the country is hot on his trail.
Taking a cue from such American success stories as “Goodfellas,” “Wolf of Wall Street,” “American Hustle” and “Blow,” “American Made” allows audiences to revel in the pilot protagonist’s illicit activities, and while the film does venture down a more dramatic path as Seal’s mission grows more dangerous, it reaches its highest altitude when emphasizing the fun and stranger-than-fiction aspects of the unbelievable true tale. That story, though slightly fictionalized here, is chaotic and intricate in equal measure, and director Doug Liman smartly allows the film’s frenetic pacing, which is amplified by the masterful editing of Saar Klein, Andrew Mondshein and Dylan Tichenor, to echo Seal’s lawless lifestyle. Even though there are moments when Gary Spinelli’s time-jumping script bites off more than it can chew, the film still manages to relate all the divergent elements of Seal’s far-reaching narrative – his involvement with the CIA, the FBI, the Medellin Cartel, and even the White House – in entertaining, energetic and intelligible fashion.
Playing the double-dealing pilot turned CIA operative and drug smuggler, Tom Cruise delivers yet another electrifying performance as Barry Seal. With his signature charm and a lovable Southern twang, Cruise’s turn is most memorable for its humor, and much of the film’s comedy stems from his hilariously carefree reactions to dire situations. Although some of the secondary characters are better crafted than others, “American Made” is still elevated by a knockout supporting cast that includes Domnhall Gleeson (“Brooklyn,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) as tightlipped CIA operative Monty Schafer, Jesse Plemons (“Black Mass”) as an Arkansas sheriff who gets wise to Barry’s smuggling efforts, and most memorably, Caleb Landry Jones (“Get Out”) as Seal’s wife’s halfwit younger brother. And while none of the female characters especially stand out, Sarah Wright transcends her role’s limitations as Seal’s reluctantly supportive wife Lucy.
“American Made” is a mischievously fun crime tale that proves Tom Cruise’s star power is under no threat of being grounded.
By Lucas Mirabella
Rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity.
Running Time: 115 minutes