‘American Made’: Tom Cruise charms as pilot with a need for greed

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Tom Cruise plays Barry Seal, a pilot and drug smuggler, in “American Made.” | UNIVERSAL PICTURES

You could make a deadly serious and blood-spattered film based on the story of Barry Seal. After all, the former TWA pilot turned CIA operative got tangled up with the likes of Pablo Escobar and Manuel Noriega as he transported guns and cocaine and even would-be rebel soldiers, not mention laundering millions of dollars in ill-gotten cash.

This is not that movie.

Doug Liman’s “American Made” is a fast-paced, breezy and mostly upbeat action-comedy-thriller that turns the likes of Escobar and Noriega into laugh-producing supporting players — and somehow manages to pull off that trick without offensively minimizing the evil ways of those legendarily ruthless drug kingpins.

Much of the credit goes to Tom Cruise, who gives one of his most energized and charming performances in years. “American Made” makes no bones about portraying Barry as a greedy thrill-seeker who rarely paused for even a moment to consider the hurtful and potentially tragic ripple effects caused by his actions — but Cruise’s charm, and his enormous reserves of charming antihero equity, keep us rooting for him to at least survive if not emerge victorious from his insanely reckless adventures.

Before Liman helmed big-budget actioners such as “The Bourne Identity” and the Cruise-starring “Edge of Tomorrow,” he established himself as a talented quick-cut stylist with the culture-shaping buddy comedy “Swingers” (1996) and the underrated caper comedy “Go” (1999). Even though “American Made” has the look of a film with a hefty budget and it features one of the world’s biggest movie stars, Liman’s style harkens back to those small gems from the late 1990s.

Sure, we get some nifty, big-movie, CGI-augmented action sequences, most of them involving Barry’s death-defying work in the cockpit as he routinely takes gunfire from hostile forces, dodges the DEA and even pulls off a crash-landing in a residential neighborhood. But “American Made” has refreshingly crude (and funny) graphics, and a “small-movie” vibe in that the most memorable scenes involve Barry in a room with a handful of other characters, usually finding himself neck-deep and sinking in an untenable situation.

When we meet Barry, it’s 1978, and he’s so bored with his work as a pilot running North American routes for TWA, he’ll deliberately do a quick deceleration and dive just to create “turbulence” and scare the life out of his passengers. (This is also the first sign Barry’s kind of a jerk.)

Barry’s been making a little cash on the side by illegally transporting Cuban cigars from Canada to the States. This attracts the attention of the CIA, which has created a profile on Barry and has identified him as a potential asset. He’s a top-level pilot, he’s willing to bend the law — and he has a knack for leaping first without looking.

Domhnall Gleeson (“The Force Awakens”) is a quirky, off-beat scene stealer as “Schafer,” the CIA operative who recruits Barry and keeps upping the stakes, which results in Barry getting really rich and also so tangled up in shady business there’s absolutely no way out.

Barry’s mission is to take surveillance photos of Central American countries. This leads to Barry working as a courier for Panama’s Manuel Noriega and a cocaine smuggler for Colombia’s Medellin Cartel. He’s dropping kilos of cocaine in the Louisiana swamps, delivering weapons to the U.S.-backed Contras in Nicaragua, and even transporting hundreds of young Nicaraguan men to rural Arkansas, I kid you not, so they could be trained to join the Contras fighting forces.

It’s insanity — and though “American Made” plays quite loose with real-life events, it’s even more insane because most of the episodes fictionalized here DID take place in the 1980s. (In addition to the Central American villains, American historical figures ranging from Ronald Reagan to Col. Oliver North make pivotal cameos in the film. There’s even a brief exchange between Barry and an amiable fella who asks if Barry is a pilot and says he was a pilot too — with the National Guard. It takes a beat to realize that’s George W. Bush, who has no business being in the movie other than it’s funny to have Barry cross paths with George W. Bush.)

Sarah Wright matches up extremely well with Cruise as Barry’s wife, Lucy, an all-American beauty and family-first mom with a truck driver’s mouth — and the willingness to fully embrace Barry’s criminal lifestyle from the moment he first literally tosses thick packs of cash in her general direction. The always first-rate Jesse Plemons (the TV shows “Friday Night Lights” and “Breaking Bad,” movies such as “Bridge of Spies”) has a handful of low-key and perfectly handled scenes as the local Arkansas sheriff who is content to shrug off Barry’s highly suspicious activities until it’s impossible for him to ignore things any longer. Caleb Landry Jones is terrific as Lucy’s idiot brother JB, whose fate provides a huge laugh even as we know it probably wasn’t very funny to JB.

Mostly, there’s Cruise, who at 55 looks a decade and a half younger, and can still fill a cockpit with star power some 30 years after “Top Gun.”


Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Doug Liman and written by Gary Spinelli. Rated R (for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity.). Running time: 115 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.

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