Cruise’s role blurs re­al­ity as dif­fer­ent kind of fly­boy

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - Broward - - MOVIES - By Michael Phillips

Has Tom Cruise been watch­ing a lot of War­ren Beatty movies lately?

In “Amer­i­can Made,” a heav­ily fic­tion­al­ized ac­count of TWA pi­lot­turned-drugs and arms smug­gler Barry Seal, the movie star does a lot of his own fly­ing and ex­e­cutes some stunts that be­lie his 55 years. But on the ground, the ac­tor takes his sweet, smil­ing time with ev­ery re­join­der in ev­ery di­a­logue se­quence, the way Beatty does. Cut the pauses out, re­write the end­ing and “Amer­i­can Made” be­comes a one-hour se­ries pi­lot. As is, at two hours, it’s fairly en­ter­tain­ing even when it doesn’t quite work, di­rected for max­i­mum pace by Cruise’s “Edge of Tomorrow” co­hort, di­rec­tor Doug Li­man.

To his credit, Cruise has worked out a few tics and per­for­mance de­tails (in­clud­ing a light, oc­ca­sional Ba­ton Rouge, La., drawl) in por­tray­ing a clas­sic Amer­i­can weasel who thinks he’s a hero.

The real Barry Seal’s bizarre ca­reer is enough for five sea­sons on Net­flix. He was busted for smug­gling ex­plo­sives into Mex­ico, in­tended for anti-Cas­tro Cubans, in the early 1960s. Though some sources deny he was ever on the CIA pay­roll, most ac­counts put Seal in the em­ploy of the U.S. in­tel­li­gence agency, fly­ing a pri­vate plane into Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries and tak­ing sur­veil­lance photos of Amer­ica’s en­e­mies. Then Seal got rich fly­ing co­caine and mar­i­juana back to the States on be­half of the fu­ture mem­bers of the Medellin car­tel. Seal ran an in­creas­ingly sprawl­ing and lu­cra­tive pri­vate air­port in Mena, Ark., even­tu­ally turn­ing snitch MPAA rat­ing: R (for lan­guage through­out and some sex­u­al­ity/nu­dity) Run­ning time: 1:55 Opens: Thursday evening on be­half of the Drug En­force­ment Agency and be­ing outed as a CIA op by the news me­dia.

Gary Spinelli’s script re­vises and deletes those and other re­sume items at will. The movie be­gins in 1978, with Cruise’s Barry, bored out of his skull, do­ing re­gional hops for TWA. In the movie, Domh­nall Glee­son plays a com­pos­ite fig­ure, Seal’s grin­ning, up­beat CIA li­ai­son.

“All this is le­gal?” Cruise asks Glee­son at one point. Sure, he an­swers, “if you’re do­ing it for the good guys.” It’s the line you hear in ev­ery Hol­ly­wood treat­ment of a story in­volv­ing morally com­pro­mised Amer­i­can co­caine and/or arms deal­ers. “Amer­i­can Made” is a bet­ter, more in­trigu­ingly con­flicted project than “Air Amer­ica” with Mel Gib­son and Robert Downey Jr. as heroin smug­glers in the Viet­nam War. And there’s lit­tle of the tonal con­fu­sion that clob­bered the re­cent “War Dogs.” (Miles Teller and Jonah Hill as wacky Yanks deal­ing arms in the thick of the Iraq in­va­sion.)

Li­man’s han­dling of Cruise’s fi­nal scene is vis­ually strik­ing and prop­erly stark. The movie doesn’t quite do its job set­ting up that end­ing, how­ever. Much of “Amer­i­can Made” plays like a com­pressed and stream­lined ver­sion of what­ever screen­writer Spinelli came up with ini­tially. Seal bumps into one his­tor­i­cal fig­ure af­ter an­other — Pana­ma­nian dic­ta­tor and CIA in­for­mant Manuel Nor­iega, Iran/ Con­tra strate­gist Oliver North, even a cameo from some­one play­ing Ge­orge W. Bush — in the years cov­ered here, 1978-1986. They be­come a col­or­ful, reck­less blur, and of­ten that blur is en­ter­tain­ing, as pho­tographed in hot, bright, amped-up col­ors by cin­e­matog­ra­pher Ce­sar Char­lone.

The real Seal, it seems, was a more am­bi­tious, wide-rang­ing crim­i­nal than he’s de­picted in “Amer­i­can Made.” Then again, no­body should go to any “based on a true story” af­fair for facts. It’s hard enough to get the right sort of dra­mat­i­cally con­vinc­ing lies. Michael Phillips is a Tri­bune critic.

DAVID JAMES/UNI­VER­SAL PICTURES

Tom Cruise plays a pi­lot who be­comes a drug smug­gler.

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