Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman reunite for a movie about an American pilot who helped kick-start the drug wars for the CIA. Read on for our American Made review!
The career of Tom Cruise has spanned more than three decades at this point, and just when you think the eternally renewable resource that is his screen charisma might be drying up, a movie like American Made comes along and reminds you why he’s one of Hollywood’s most capable leading men.
Barry Seal becomes a prolific drug smuggler for Pablo Escobar’s infamous Medellin Cartel in the 1980s.
Directed by Edge of Tomorrow and The Bourne Identity filmmaker Doug Liman from a script by Gary Spinelli (Stash House), American Made casts Cruise as Barry Seal, a commercial airline pilot who’s recruited by the CIA to assist in covert operations in Central America, only to become a prolific drug smuggler for Pablo Escobar’s infamous Medellin Cartel in the 1980s.
Joining Cruise in the featured cast is Ex Machina and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens actor Domhnall Gleeson as Barry’s CIA handler, Sarah Wright (21 & Over) as Barry’s wife, Lucy Seal, and Alejandro Edda (Fear the Walking Dead) as Medellin Cartel co-founder Jorge Ochoa.
The basic plot of American Made is ripped from the headlines, but the script plays fast and loose with the details of Seal’s accounts of fueling both the drug trade and the U.S.-backed rebel group known as the Contras in Nicaragua.
Although Liman frequently turns to news broadcasts and archival footage related to the events spinning out of Barry’s exploits, it’s not the film’s foundation in real-world events that keeps things interesting — Liman wisely lets that task fall squarely on the capable shoulders of the film’s star.
Cruise is one of Hollywood’s most reliable (and bankable) male leads, but pairing him with the right filmmaker can mean the difference between a Mission: Impossible and a Rock of Ages, regardless of how much charisma he brings to the screen. American Made reunites Cruise with his director on Edge of Tomorrow, one of 2014’s most under-appreciated films, and the product of this reunion suggests that the team-up that worked so well in that sci-fi adventure was no fluke.
The version of Barry Seal that Cruise brings to the screen overflows with self-confidence and a willingness to bet the house on his own skills and a bit of luck to make it big.
It’s the sort of ego-driven character that plays to Cruise’s strengths and it’s difficult not to get swept up in that boundless charm.
While the ridiculous amounts of money his efforts produce allow him to keep his family happy, Cruise offers up a character that cares less about the money and more about topping himself with each run across the border and each new obstacle he faces — both at home and abroad. It’s the sort of ego-driven character that plays to Cruise’s strengths, and no matter how many times we’ve seen variations of it in classic films like Top Gun or The Color of Money it’s difficult not to get swept up in that boundless charm.
Behind the camera, Liman does well to keep the focus on Cruise’s high-flying smuggler, who careens from one scheme to the next at the whims of shady government agencies, powerful drug lords, and political operators at the highest levels.
The pace of the film makes it difficult to spend too much time pondering the darker implications of Barry’s decisions. Although it occasionally offers a sympathetic nod to the plight of his wife and children amid all of these criminal undertakings, the film casts them as supporting characters in Barry’s story.
Liman’s decision to focus on Barry’s story could easily come off as a selfish angle to take, but in keeping Cruise’s performance at the center of the film, Liman hides a complicated lesson in Cold War-era geopolitical machinations under a compelling performance that keeps you guessing when the house of cards that Barry builds will inevitably topple.
As for the rest of the film’s cast, Gleeson is impressively smarmy as Schafer, an ambitious CIA agent who lurks in the background of the story after setting events in motion. The Ex Machina actor is fascinating to watch when he’s clearly enjoying a role, and the scenes shared by Cruise and Gleeson have the pair operating within a bubble of mutual mistrust that makes for some fun moments.
Wright provides a capable performance as Lucy Seal, but the age difference between Cruise and his leading lady — more than two decades in this particular film — occasionally distracts from the story. Still, Wright holds her own in the scenes she shares with Cruise, and although her character’s role is minimized by the focus on Barry, she does well with the screen time given.
While it’s not likely to be ranked among the iconic films that made Cruise a superstar — and later kept him among the Hollywood elite — American Made is an excellent reminder of why he’s in that upper echelon of actors. It’s a film that lets him do what he does best, with a talented director who knows how to get the best out of his cast and hold the audience’s attention.
To its credit, American Made is also a surprisingly digestible dramatic breakdown of an extremely complicated period in the country’s recent history that many Americans are aware of, but few understand.
More than anything else, however, American Made is confirmation that Cruise can still sell a movie with a great performance — and he doesn’t need any crazy digital effects or death-defying stunt sequences to do it.