Over the last twenty years, Tom Cruise has built an image best described in only two words: Tom Cruise. He rarely disappears too far into a character, bringing his familiar cocky, yet charming, persona to nearly every role he touches. While “American Made” is officially a biopic of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), an American pilot who smuggled drugs for Pablo Escobar while working for the American government, this picture takes liberties with a real life story and primarily concerns itself with being a star vehicle for Cruise.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because the often exaggerated and fast-paced “American Made” makes for bombastic entertainment. Cruise’s Barry is all winks and smiles from the word “go,” and he leaps at the chance to help the CIA spy on communists in South America. He flies several reconnaissance missions over enemy territory and reports back to his handler, Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson). His success with the CIA draws the attention of Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia) and his cartel, who ask him to smuggle cocaine into the United States. Ready for more thrills, Barry says yes to drugs. Sorry, Nancy Reagan.
As Barry juggles his clandestine CIA operations, his burgeoning drug smuggling business and money laundering schemes, director Doug Liman repeatedly highlights the increasing absurdity of his escapades. “American Made” occasionally touches base with Barry’s family, though his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), and the children don’t really come into their own as characters. The focus is squarely on Barry.
Cruise doesn’t disappoint for a second. While he certainly isn’t playing a true-to-life version of Barry, he does bring a rare brand of timeless star power. Much of “American Made” is so engaging because Cruise is having a blast, whether he’s outrunning DEA jets or schmoozing off the Medellin cartel. The only non-Cruise trait that Barry displays is his slight Louisiana accent. Otherwise, Barry would feel right at home in “Mission: Impossible” or “Top Gun."
Because Cruise makes the picture a very light-hearted affair with more fiction than fact, it’s easy to accuse “American Made” of being shallow and overly dramatic. That would be a mistake, because Liman and Cruise aren’t aiming for accuracy or social commentary. Instead, they want to heighten Barry Seal’s story with humor and adrenaline, and they don’t pretend to be doing otherwise. Barry stumbles into opportunities with little political ideology to inform his decisions, only professing a love for his country and the riches he’s made.
Eventually, Barry’s accomplishments and plans unravel as his mistakes pile up and fortune runs out. Though the third act takes a grim turn, the film doesn’t put the brakes on the humor. The moments of tragedy are brief, and the emotional weight of particular plot developments is minimal. If you want high drama, “American Made” isn’t it.
“American Made” is an apt title for a movie that imbues a true story with a classic, theatrically Hollywood feel. It makes an empathetic hero out of a shady guy, and it looks good doing it. Liman’s unfocused storytelling sometimes causes the picture to succumb to the “this happened and then this happened” form of progression, but the pacing and the rough edges are patched up by Cruise’s magnetic turn. Like Barry, “American Made” lives in the fast lane, and it is an excellent entry in the crime comedy genre.