American Made. What a suiting title for a Tom Cruise vehicle. The 55-year old superstar is, for all intents and purposes, American made as can be. Raised on the nipple of Hollywood, Cruise made his first million at the tender age of 21 before becoming one of the most recognized Americans across the globe. No amount of Oprah couch jumping, public divorces or religious scandals could keep the man down, thing of grit and determination and charm and externalized positivity that he is. Cruise is like a living pep rally, draped in an American flay and showered with atta-boys. Like Barry Seal, the true-to-life pilot turned CIA operative/Cartel drug smuggler he portrays in American Made, he’s a man who, despite innumerable punches, won’t stay down. He always gets the job done. He always delivers.
Alright, I’ll concede the fact that The Mummy was hot garbage but looking at TC’s track record over the years, it’s easy to diagnose why the man has been as hot as long as he has. He makes good movies. Period. And he’s consistent throughout his filmography. Stepping into a Tom Cruise movie is like going to Quiznos. You know what you’re going to get and even if it’s not gourmet you know it’ll hit that craving. No, not all Tom Cruise movies are made equal – I’m looking at you Knight and Day – but it’s very feat when a Tom Cruise film is actively bad (as was the unfortunate case with his last ill-conceived role and one of the reasons its horribleness was so shocking). With American Made, Tom Cruise is restored, back to remind us why this OG American idol has claimed the action movie star mantle for so many years.
As the jaded commercial pilot Barry Seal, Cruise plays to his strengths. He’s adopted a faint shade of a Southern accent and his jowls look more artificially sculpted than ever but my boy Tommy is so in his element you can basically hear the electrons singing. Seal is a confidence man first and foremost, all spin and grin. The kind of guy who will rock the boat just to watch the passengers tumble. Never one to sweat through a tough break so much as along side it as it unfolds. Cruise blasts his million dollar smile, exuding the raw energy of a man who knows no limit and doesn’t care to find one. Again, it’s a perfect match. Plump with enough Southern Charm to coax a laugh even from the notoriously humorless Pablo Escobar, Cruise operates on a level he hasn’t in a good while. His turn gives American Made a can’t-look-away lead but director Doug Liman deserves a heck of a lot of credit for punching up everything else. Liman keeps a clear timeline, tracking the various ventures of Seal as he pivots from 707 command pilot to an undercover CIA operative snapping photos of Central American militant groups to accidental overnight heroin smuggler for the Medellín Cartel to a weapons supplier for freedom fighters to the various arrests that separate the chapters of the life (and the film). Liman presents the metamorphic arc with an artistic eye, opting for a perfectly edited collection of shots, some that establish setting or character, others that make for smartly-timed jokes, all which seem lensed with a touch of knowing sarcasm, that makes the film feel both tight and airy. Like it’s not taking itself too seriously even though it’s manufactured to be just the way it is.
There’s a crispy, sun-baked filter on cinematographer César Charlone’s images, lending a sepia-toned, 70s home video feel to the proceedings that really help to double down on the era and tone that American Made captures as various other technical aspects of the film are given room to soar. Andrew Mondshein’s (The Sixth Sense) editing skills are in sharp focus, weaving the narrative together in playful, unexpected ways, barreling through B-roll in a way that makes you attentive of every second, not wanting to miss one of the thousand details stuffed into the margins.
Like a jet loaded with heroin skimming around known law enforcement hot spots, the sophomore script from Gary Spinelli (he wrote a 2012 straight-to-video actioner starring Dolph Lundgren) attempts to navigate the pitfalls of these kinds of biopics, circumventing the formula as best he can. That’s not to say we haven’t seen this exact kind of movie before. Blow, Scarface, American Gangster and The Wolf of Wall Street all follow similar tales of an everyman earning riches beyond measure through the power of illicit substances. On the small screen, Breaking Bad and, more recently, Ozark put fresh coats of paint on the age old drug-fueled come-up saga. But American Made at least attempts to skimp on the “Let me tell you how I got here” type narration that often dominate these kinds of movies. There’s narration – ever since Good Fellas did it, every imitator and their mother felt they needed to do it too – but it’s not used as a crutch to cover for poor storytelling so much as another angle to examine a slightly-less-complicated-than-you-would-expect character. By the end of the film has American Made done enough to separate itself from the pack? Not really, but that doesn’t make the journey any less enjoyable in the moment.
There are other characters who dilly-dally through the film but few of them make much of an impression. Domhnall Gleeson shows up as Seal’s shadowy handler Schafer, a middle man who can crank up the intimidation when he wants, brown-nosing his way to a promotion by pushing his asset beyond his comfort zone; Sarah Wright fails to make a splash as Lucy Seal, Barry’s wife whose only real memorable moments are going against the movie trope grain (when asked, “Do you trust me?” she spits, “Fuck no! But I love you.”); Jesse Plemons and Lola Kirke get thankless roles as a dim small-town Arkansas sheriff and his wiser wife; and Caleb Landry Jones, that guy who perpetually plays a creepy ginger snot, plays Barry’s half-witted brother-in-law, a creepy ginger snot.
Do any of the side characters add up to much? Again, no. This is Cruise’s show and it, uh, shows. There’s little time and energy pent up trying to resolve these other character’s journeys but American Made is, uh, made to be a Cruise showcase and a Cruise showcase it is. And as a perennial defender, I’m all for movies that give Cruise something to do other than sprint.
Following Edge of Tomorrow, Liman and Cruise are a pairing just about anyone would have encouraged. Although American Made falls flat in comparison to that aforementioned (unfortunately) hidden gem, it nonetheless proves that the two have a certain chemistry together that cannot be denied. American Made might just be Cruise’s best performance of the last decade, probably because it’s the first time he’s not mainly running around an action movie set, and though it’s more single-serving spectacle than something we’ll be talking about for years, or even months, to come, American Made represents a bonafide movie star coming to bat and proving why he is the household name he is, aided critically by flashy, punchy and above all fun direction from Doug Liman.
CONCLUSION: Crackling editing, a gum-grin Tom Cruise performance and eye-catching direction from Doug Liman make ‘American Made’ an easily consumable serving of anti-hero biopic. Telling the story of CIA-operative-turned-drug-smuggler Barry Seal, Liman’s film tries to distinguish itself from the pack but won’t likely be remembered beyond its snappy production aspects and as a sizzling Cruise showcase.