Tom Cruise has enjoyed a long stretch of movie star success thanks to his action hero persona; however, in American Made, the international superstar leaves his usual trademark behind to step back into some actual character acting, and the result is a darkly funny crime story romp in which Cruise shines.
The film follows the real-life story of Barry Seal (Cruise), a pilot prodigy stuck in a boring job doing TWA commercial flights in the late '70s. Life changes dramatically when Barry is approached by a CIA agent named Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), who recruits Barry for covert recon fly overs in various South American countries. When Barry shows talent for the work, he graduates to doing pickups of intel from Manuel Noriega and Panama, which then bring him to the attention of Pablo Escobar and the infamous Medellin Cartel.
Before long, Barry is working every possible side of the fence, flying drugs, guns, and even guerrilla soldiers back and forth between North and South America. It's an exciting and lucrative operation at first - but like most great American crime stories, the ride starts to get turbulent. As Barry tries to glide through high-stakes espionage he never bargained for, the threat of crashing and burning gets bigger and bigger by the day.
Cruise reunites with his Edge of Tomorrow director Doug Liman for a biopic that is less high-concept blockbuster and more 'larger-than-life' absurdist comedy that just so happens to be based on real historical events. Comedic crime films are a sub-genre that's become more popular in recent years, and American Made can definitely be compared to films like Pain and Gain or War Dogs in its embrace of a half-funny, half-sad, tone about just how unscrupulous and corrupt the "American Dream" can become.
(Tom Cruise stars in American Made)
Liman is restrained in his directorial style, both literally and figuratively. Scenes of airplane flights often keep the camera angles in very tight close up, with Liman relying on Cruise's famous face and charisma to carry the scene — a challenge Cruise definitely rises to. Liman extends that trust in his cast to most scenes in the film, letting the actors find the rhythm and tone of the conversations and interactions between the principal characters. It works out well, giving the film a playfully dynamic energy in its still moments, while scenes of aerial flights and chases are all well shot and exciting, with many gorgeous bird's eye views of exotic coastal and South American locales.
A talented supporting cast never lets the "Cruise Charisma" outshine them. Sarah Wright (Walk of Shame) and Domhnall Gleeson (Ex-Machina) both hold their own as Barry's peppery wife Sarah, and his boyishly shady CIA handler Schafer (respectively). As for Cruise himself: this is probably the best acting we seen from him since Michael Mann's Collateral back in 2004, and American Made will be a breath of fresh air to those who are usually avoid the prospect of "watching Tom Cruise play Tom Cruise."
Like most biopics, American Made can't wrangle in all of the many threads that make up a life. The film definitely loses focus at points, investing screen time in side characters (mostly law enforcement) who never end up mattering all that much, when that time could have been better spent delving deeper into Barry himself. However, the lack of depth and gravitas in writer Gary Spinelli's script is covered up by the actors' wit and charisma, making for good (if only superficial) biopic entertainment.
While American Made is definitely a good time at the movies, it's not the sort of event film that absolutely requires theatrical viewing. However, if you're on the fence about whether this is the sort of flight you want to take with Cruise, don't worry: it's a fun ride.
American Made is now playing in theaters. It is 1 hour 55 minutes long, and is Rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity.