This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Director: Doug Liman
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Remember RISKY BUSINESS? A FEW GOOD MEN? MAGNOLIA or EYES WIDE SHUT? It’s been years since Tom Cruise has been given a really daring role besides the action hero of several different franchises. Cruise proved through all the movies listed above that he has the acting chops to play nearly any character with confidence and charisma, but in recent years has often chosen easy money over a strong performance. AMERICAN MADE, directed by THE BOURNE IDENTITY’s Doug Liman, is not an amazing film, but it could mark a change—or at the very least a discrepancy—in Tom Cruise’s recent career. Like the film itself, Tom Cruise has a vibrant energy in his role as real-life pilot Barry Seal that makes the film much better than it has any right to be.
Loosely based on true events, AMERICAN MADE tells the tale of the aforementioned Barry Seal, a pilot recruited by CIA agent Schaefer (Domhnall Gleeson) in the late 1970s to take reconnaissance pictures of communist groups in Central America. Very rapidly, Barry gets more and more in over his head not only with the CIA, but also the Colombian cartel led by Pablo Escobar and Nicaraguan contras training to fight the communist sandinistas. The fast pacing and escalation of craziness help to keep AMERICAN MADE going—just when you think the film can’t get any wilder, director Liman turns up the tension another notch. Seal, however, adapts to each turn and twist with a toothy grin and a survivalist attitude, desperately trying to keep his family together and stay out of jail.
Tom Cruise smiling in relief as he realizes he’s finally landed a good role
Of course, AMERICAN MADE is nothing new or different, and it lacks for the most part any historical accuracy. The real-life Barry Seal had an entirely different physique than Cruise and supposedly worked for the United States government two decades before the late 1970s and 1980s. The character of Schaefer never existed and is only meant to represent Seal’s CIA contacts. Doug Liman even described his latest film as “a fun lie based on a true story.” Regardless of truthfulness, though, AMERICAN MADE is—more than anything else—a fun movie, one that provides plenty of laughs and thrills to satisfy the most casual or reluctant viewer. Once the film starts, it’s hard not to get engrossed with Cruise’s brilliant performance, the tautly written script, and Liman’s direction.
Gleeson, Sarah Wright (who plays Seal’s young wife Lucy), and the rest of the supporting cast are terrific. Gleeson brings the charm and confidence of a CIA agent looking for end results, regardless of the means to get there. Wright plays her part admirably, even if her character is never given much to work with besides being the love interest of the protagonist. The only missing link in the movie is Sheriff Downing (Jesse Plemons), the sheriff of the small town that Barry and his family move to in order to build a secret air base. Despite Plemons being a great and more recognizable actor nowadays, he is barely used throughout the movie; the majority of his scenes were most likely cut in the editing room to give AMERICAN MADE a shorter runtime, and thereby a more breakneck pace.
That look you have when you get arrested by state police, the FBI, and the DEA . . . all at the same time
There are other small nitpicks and criticisms to be made about AMERICAN MADE, but that shouldn’t by any means downplay how refreshing the film is. Big studios like Universal, Paramount, and 20th Century Fox constantly aspire to make big-budget films that more often than not end up taking themselves too seriously. AMERICAN MADE is almost the exact opposite: made for a smaller budget and releasing late September (right between summer blockbusters and fall award contenders), AMERICAN MADE doesn’t have any right to be so good, or even so much fun. Somehow, though, it excels at what most big films that any major studio released this year failed at, including Cruise’s previous film THE MUMMY: giving its audience a good time. It won’t be on any top 10 lists this year, nor will it break any box office records, but the beauty of AMERICAN MADE is that it doesn’t strive to do either: its mission is to entertain. And, boy, does it succeed.