Film Review: American Made

True story of how pilot Barry Seal made millions from the CIA, the Medellin cartel and the Contras gives Tom Cruise a knockout role.
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A shaggy-dog tale of epic proportions, American Made follows underachieving commercial pilot Barry Seal as he stumbles across the fortunes to be made by spying, smuggling drugs and dealing weapons. It finds an energized Tom Cruise finally acting up to his potential in a movie that veers confidently from slapstick to bloodshed and back.

What's most surprising about American Made is that it's based on documented events. Viewers fed up with the current administration's corruption and deceit will be jolted by how agents under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan embraced criminality, justifying just about anything in whacked-out schemes to defeat Communism.

Gary Spinelli's brisk, exciting screenplay starts with Seal living beyond his means and so bored with flying that he fakes emergencies to scare his passengers. Seal has no trouble justifying smuggling Cuban cigars into the country for friends, so he's easy pickings for a CIA operative codenamed Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson). The agency equips Seal with hotrod aircraft and surveillance cameras to photograph Central American militias.

Seal's next step is to pick up intelligence from Panamanian strongman Noriega. Then he's flying cocaine for Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and the Medellin cartel. Seal accepts each turn, each bad decision, each slide into crime with humor and disbelief, backed up by Schafer's insistence that he's helping his country.

Cruise and director Doug Liman are both pilots, which helps explain American Made's dazzling aerial footage. When Seal swoops down on a dirt airstrip in the jungle (captured in one shot with Cruise at the controls), you can feel his exhilaration, his appetite for danger and speed. Liman makes flying, even for homicidal drug dealers, seem like the greatest thrill in the world. The movie strings out one amazing stunt after another, stopping only to note the crazy incongruities in Seal's life on the ground.

The target of the DEA, the ATF, the FBI and state police, Seal juggles in-laws, Contras, lawyers and bankers with the same engaging grin, the same enthusiastic "Hola!" He's that cocky, annoying Cruise hustler of Risky Business and Top Gun all grown up, desperation seeping through his sweat-stained shirts. As astute archival clips show, Seal is just following the path to the American Dream. And for a while, it works. He makes so much money that there's nowhere to put it.

When Seal's world comes crashing down, American Made loses some of its euphoric drive. But Liman and Spinelli have kept a couple of amazing reversals up their sleeves, including a cameo from Arkansas governor Bill Clinton.

The last time Tom Cruise performed this well onscreen was in Edge of Tomorrow, also directed by Liman. In both movies the director convinced the actor not just to play against type, but to drop tics and mannerisms he had accumulated to protect his persona. The Cruise in American Made feels fresh, unguarded, and he's backed by great support from a largely unknown cast. (It helps that Spinelli sketches in characters with such speed and precision.)

Edge of Tomorrow was a box-office disappointment, although Cruise and Liman are working on a sequel. American Made's generic title and advertising may not be enough to convince consumers to give Cruise another try. It's a shame, because unlike vehicles like The Mummy, this one is a blast.

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