By Thomas Simpson
Director Doug Liman reunites with Tom Cruise albeit in a very different film than last time. While 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow was a sci-fi action epic, American Made is a more grounded film, although considering its subject matter, that’s not a literal description. Based on a true story, Cruise stars as Barry Seal, a commercial airline pilot that goes from obscurity to unwanted fame as one of the biggest drug smugglers in history. It’s a wild account of a true story that turns out to be one of the year’s best surprises.
We meet Seal as a bored airline pilot working for TWA whose comes to the attention of the CIA. Agent Monty Schafer meets him in a bar and offers him some work as a reconnaissance pilot. It seems dangerous but it’s better money than what he’s earning and he has a family to feed. When the Medellin Cartel come to him with an even better offer, the riches are too good to pass up but who says he has to give up working for Uncle Sam? Seal splits his time between the CIA and the Cartel, but as his fortune spirals out of control, so does his ability to juggle his life.
American Made opens with a whirlwind pace as Liman wastes no time in transporting Seal from his dull life to the chaotic and frenzied world of shadowy government work and international drug smuggling. Screenwriter Gary Spinelli may take creative license with the source material but it suits the character’s surprisingly lax and carefree lifestyle. Yes, Seal may be working for one of the most bloodies and notorious narcotic gangs of all time but that doesn’t mean the story can’t be presented with Cruise’s trademark smile and cockiness.
Cruise’s movies for the past few years have mostly been action based as the 55-year-old shows no signs of slowing down in his later life. Here, we’re reminded of how good an actor he is as he turns in one of his best performances in recent memory. He’s suave and arrogant, driven by greed, swaggering into scenes with a sense of invincibility and an underlying vulnerability.
It’s not all fun and games for the pilot, Liman may present Seal’s life through a gaze of sickening wealth the director is quick to change the tone on a dime, highlighting the real treacherous environment he inhabits and the consequences that come with dealing with dangerous individuals he’s doing business with. There’s much to laugh at and Cruise presents a very likable Seal, however, it’s hard to sympathize with such a character whose puts his ego and bank balance before everything else. Yes, he may be a devoted family man but he has no ethical reservations in doing the work he does as long as he gets paid, enjoying the notoriety that comes with it. There’s a subtle pressure bubbling through the second half of the film that creates an unease that’s difficult to shake as the laughs start to fade and the stakes are raised.
American Made isn’t a morality tale, nor does it shove a message down the throats of the audiences. Instead, it’s an easily watchable crime drama that hits the right notes with its humor, providing tension when it matters without raising anyone’s blood pressure. An enjoyable understated film that might just fly into a few end of year top-10 lists. R.
Thomas is a writer and filmmaker based in Glasgow, U.K. Find him on Twitter: @Simmy41.