"American Made" is a wildly entertaining film thanks to its "so outrageous it has to be true" story and effective performances from its cast, led by Tom Cruise.
In fact, what Cruise in particular delivers in "American Made" might just be his strongest acting work in over a decade. The role as written plays to his strengths – effortless charm, likeability, and swagger – and he adds to it the kind of heartfelt conviction we’ve seen him project before in his most critically acclaimed roles.
What's it about?
In 1978, gifted and respected TWA pilot Barry Seal (Cruise) had a relatively enviable life, complete with a beautiful and loving wife (Sarah Wright Olsen), children, a home and job security. But there was one truth that Barry could not escape, no matter how many routes he flew or miles he logged in the cockpit: he was bored.
Enter Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), a CIA “spook” who offers Barry a proposition. “Fly for us,” Schafer says, which doesn’t sound all that crazy except the routes include trips to Nicaragua to photograph from the air communist encampments and militia movements.
“Is this legal?” Barry asks.
“If you’re doing it for the ‘Good Guys’, sure, why not?” Schafer says with a smile.
With that line, along with the potential risk, fully in mind, Barry accepts, and begins his journey down a rabbit hole that will include drug trafficking, gun running, money laundering, and encounters with such notable names from the era as Manuel Noriega, Pablo Escobar, Ronald Reagan and Lt. Col. Oliver North.
Time and again, just when it looks like the jig is up for Barry and someone – the Medellin Cartel, the DEA, the FBI – has finally caught up with him, he gets a break, and goes right back into business, becoming one of the 1980’s wealthiest men you’ve never heard of.
Cruise in his element
As hyperbolic as this may sound, “American Made” may just be Tom Cruise’s most widely-appealing film in over a decade.
Let that sink in, because he’s made quite a few films in that time frame.
So many of those films, however, were built what we now know as the “Cruise Persona.” Whether it’s his work in his ongoing “Mission: Impossible” and “Jack Reacher” series films or one-offs like “Edge of Tomorrow” and “Rock of Ages,” there’s a Cruise type that over his decades making films audiences have either come to gravitate toward or be repelled by.
Rare is the performance where Cruise the performer escapes these well-established expectations. Rarer still is the Cruise performance where he begins with what we expect and then subverts it, deconstructs it, and builds something new.
Arguably, his supporting turn in “Magnolia” as motivational speaker Frank T.J. Mackey was the last time we saw him deliver such a thoughtful turn, and he earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for it.
It remains to be seen whether the Academy will honor Cruise’s work in “American Made” in such a way, but it does merit some consideration, at least considering the field of lead acting work out there thus far in 2017. It’s not quite transformative – again, Cruise is in his element here, and the role plays to his strengths.
However, he does subvert audience expectations by providing Barry with an undercurrent of palpable devotion to the family life he’s built. With his need for risk, adrenaline, and adventure, Barry Seal might seem the last person to have such dogged determination to come home to a wife and kids he loves desperately at the end of the day, but he does, and Cruise makes it believable.
Gleeson's star continues to rise
If it turns out that Cruise doesn’t merit any accolades or honors for his work in “American Made”, at the very least, actor Domhnall Gleeson should get a few.
Gleeson’s is a face that movie goers should be familiar with now due to the wide range of roles he’s taken on in recent years. He’s been in everything from “Harry Potter” to “Star Wars” to indie film darlings like 2014’s “Ex-Machina” and 2015’s “Brooklyn”, each time raising his profile just a little more.
“American Made” provides a unique vehicle for Gleeson’s talents and he takes full advantage. While Cruise’s character plays to that actor’s strengths, Gleeson’s turn as the slick and opportunistic Schafer may be among the most different types of roles he’s taken on, and he simply nails it.
No review of “American Made” would be complete without mention of director Doug Liman. Liman’s strength of vision, his comic timing, and his ability to bring out strong work from his actors are all at work in this film, and they produce a memorable film experience that defies genre labeling.
Given all that, yes, “American Made” is certainly worth the time and the money to see in theaters. Drag that one skeptic you know who professes to hate Tom Cruise films to see it, pay for their ticket and their concessions if you have to, and dare them to give the film an honest chance.
At the very least, they’re likely to come out saying, “Ok, that wasn’t bad.”
Starring Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright Olsen, E. Roger Mitchell, Jesse Plemons, Lola Kirke, Alejandro Edda, Benito Martinez, Caleb Landry Jones, Jayma Mays. Directed by Doug Liman.
Running time: 115 minutes
Rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity.