‘American Made’ soars with Cruise at the helm
He’s a good guy gone bad with amazing luck, who’s running drugs and working for the CIA. What could go wrong?
American Made points out an unfortunate time in our history when government shenanigans ran amok internationally and people did bad things in the name of greed and power. But hoo-boy, does Tom Cruise have fun with it.
The A-lister is a Southern-fried airline pilot covered in sweat stains and cocaine powder — though not always at the same time — in director Doug Liman’s awesomely absurd real-life morality tale ( out of four; rated R; in theaters Friday). Much like The Big Short explained the housing-bubble collapse in an entertaining, less history-bookish way, Made takes the same tack when it comes to the war on drugs in the 1980s and efforts to help the Contras vs. the insurgent Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
Even with a Top Gun sequel in the works, American Made feels like a spiritual successor. You could imagine Cruise’s TWA pilot Barry Seal as a Maverick in his younger days, though when we meet him in 1978, he’s creating turbulence in clear skies just to mess with passengers and curb his own boredom.
He’s talented behind the control stick but also a money-hungry, reckless sort who smuggles Cuban cigars on the side, the first thing noted by an enigmatic CIA agent named Monty (Domhnall Gleeson). They meet in a bar and Monty points out “the revolution’s in the air” when convincing him to ditch his gig and fly covert missions south of the border.
Barry’s got a knack for it, so the CIA ramps up his workload, which puts him on the radar of the Medellín Cartel. The drug lords talk him into smuggling coke back to the USA, creating an escalating set of outrageous circumstances for Barry, from transporting Contras for military training to opening various money-laundering ventures around his home in Mena, Ark. “I do tend to leap before I look. Maybe I should ask more questions?” Barry asks, showcasing equal parts self-confidence and naïvete.
The usual Cruise charisma is in high gear, yet he exudes a sense of desperation that’s both palpable and hilarious: Every time you think he’ll finally get his comeuppance, he lucks out in some crazy way — like crashing a plane in a suburb to avoid the DEA and speeding off on a kid’s bicycle while awash in exploded opiate. He makes so many millions that he runs out of room to bury or stash it all, creating his very own greenback Sword of Damocles.
Those illegal missions also let Liman balance tension and comedy at home as Barry tries to keep his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen), and kids from his dealings. The narrative’s momentum derails when his family gets sucked into the turmoil, especially Barry’s good-for-nothing brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones).
For the most part, though, Barry’s daredevil set pieces move along at a great clip and history nerds who followed Reagan, Pablo Escobar, Ollie North and the Iran-Contra affair get to see those figures and events from the eyes of an ordinary guy just trying not to die extraordinarily.
Barry (Tom Cruise) tries and fails to keep wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen) out of his international escapades, including an offer he really can’t refuse from drug lord Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda).