Published Sep 29, 2017Tom Cruise has always displayed an impeccable knack for harnessing, and occasionally subverting, his mega-watt movie-star charisma in service of his films, but since portraying Vietnam vet Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July back in 1992, he's mostly shied away from playing any real-life characters.
That all changes with American Made, as Cruise re-unites with his Edge of Tomorrow director Doug Liman for the unbelievable and hugely entertaining story of how pilot Barry Seal got involved with the CIA and Pablo Escobar's Medellin cartel in the late '70s and early '80s.
Seal flies commercial airplanes. but you can sense he's growing increasingly disillusioned and weary with the job, as he returns home from one trip and crashes on the bed without even noticing the sexy lingerie his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) was waiting for him in. He's casually confronted at an airport about smuggling Cuban cigars into America through Canadian cities and feigns ignorance initially, but when the CIA agent, Monty (Domhnall Gleeson), does something entirely unexpected and offers him a job taking reconnaissance photos of communist insurgents in Central and South America, Seal can't resist.
It turns out he's a natural at the gig, too. Before too long, he crosses paths with Pablo Escobar and his partners, who see Barry as a potential opportunity to get their product into America. This leads to a thrilling scene in which Barry attempts a take-off from a dangerously short runway while worrying about the amount of cocaine weighing him down and the visible wreckages of planes from other pilots that were enlisted before him that ended in fiery failure. All the while, Escobar and his men are looking on while making wagers on whether he makes it out alive.
From there everything gets crazy — as Seal himself admits in confessional home videos that serve as a framing device throughout. The film details the CIA giving Seal his own airport on a big expanse of land in Mena, Arkansas and becoming so incredibly wealthy that he begins running out of places to stash overflowing suitcases of cash. At one point, he digs a hole in his backyard to bury one only to find another suitcase already there that he'd forgotten about. Meanwhile, he becomes more and more entrenched in both the CIA's plans for Central America and Escobar's flourishing drug operation.
The movie can't help but sometimes feel as if it's been cobbled together out of parts of other movies, and yet retains a certain sense of originality thanks to the unique perspective of Seal and the outrageous particulars of his life. There's the familiar meteoric rise that leads to a montage of enjoying life's greatest excesses and the usual hangers-on that could potentially ruin everything (here best exemplified by Lucy's brother JB, played to greasy perfection by Get Out's Caleb Landry Jones), not to mention a third act that, though it drags a little as it reaches desperately for a climax, is permeated by the paranoia of not knowing who to trust.
Liman and Cruise prove to be an ideal match for the material. The former has shown a knack for helming a rollicking good time since his early days directing Swingers and Go, but his years in Hollywood have only polished his style and honed his mastery of mounting an exhilarating sequence. Cruise, on the other hand, manages to make us empathize with an anti-hero who continues to use the government's morally muddled agenda to engage in his clearly illegal (albeit undeniably lucrative) business on the side. He so obviously deserves to be put behind bars for all that he's done, but when Cruise flashes those mega-watt pearly whites, we just can't help but want the guy to fly away free. (Universal)