American Made review: Tom Cruise is watchable again


American Made signals a return to form for Tom Cruise after a stretch of box office bombs.

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It was a rough summer for Tom Cruise. After his over-hyped Mummy reboot was universally considered to be a flop, some hold him personally responsible for killing the Dark Universe franchise before it even really begins.  While things aren’t that bad for Universal just yet, things were looking pretty grim for Cruise.  Part of the stigma stems from the general perception that his last few performances (e.g. Jack Reacher: Never Go BackEdge of Tomorrow) have been phoned in while Cruise has been distracted by his unorthodox personal life. It also hasn’t helped that journalists have taken him to task for his wild lifestyle and notorious off-screen antics.

American Made should quiet that chatter for a little while. Cruise gives us his best performance in nearly a decade, and he does so with little help from a weak supporting cast. Domhnall Gleeson takes some of the load off in his limited role, as does Sarah Wright, but neither performance is good enough to convince studios that they are the burgeoning leads they’ve been threatening to become. The true star, however, is the real life story that the film is based on.

The plot portrays one man’s role in the infamous Iran-Contra Scandal that plagued the Reagan Administration in the mid-1980s. Barry Seal (Cruise) is an ordinary TWA pilot, who is recruited to join the CIA by agent “Schafer” (Gleeson). Seal’s job is to run reconnaissance missions in Nicaragua flying a solo plane, so that the government can help rebels overthrow regimes supported by the Soviet Union. While in Nicaragua, Seal is also pressed into joining an upstart drug cartel and begins smuggling cocaine back with him to the U.S. His double enterprise becomes more dangerous as it grows larger, causing Barry to juggle concerns over his business, his family life, and his own safety.  Meanwhile, the CIA looks the other way as law enforcement agencies become suspicious about Seal’s operations.

American Made poster acquired from EPK

The art of American Made is in Cruise’s ability to sell the audience on the idea that Seal is just an ordinary guy trying to make a quick buck and appease his nagging wife (Wright). He displays a laid-back southern charm throughout and narrates the events as if he was just a man reacting to the forces at work around him. Despite knowing that he is a government-sanctioned criminal, you feel for the guy because it’s hard to say that you would do anything differently given the circumstances. Conversely, the intelligence forces are consistently portrayed as the bad guys, constantly re-tooling entire nations as if they were Lego sets. Barry Seal is simply a guy who is in over his head after getting involved with the wrong people. After all, you don’t expect to get in trouble while working for your own government.

Zany animated maps accompany Cruise’s narration, overlay-ed by a soundtrack that ranges from classic rock to bluegrass. Director Doug Liman expertly balances these lighthearted sequences with heavier ones in a way that leaves you smiling while pondering the ethics of everything you’ve seen. Cruise amplifies this effect by delivering his lines with the perfect touch of humor: just enough to give Seal charisma but not so much that it undermines the gravity of the situation.

Cruise and Gleeson have spotty chemistry, though at times this feels like an asset to the film’s message.  In a movie about a guy taking advantage of messy politics, you don’t want the protagonist to seem too chummy with the higher-ups. This message of opportunism fades as the film closes, leaving the audience to decide who wore the white hats in this fiasco. Even Ronald Reagan is colored gray, a tint that will be familiar by the time the credits roll.

Aside from the weak supporting cast, the only notes that didn’t hit are the points at which the various arms of the government seem convoluted and thus hinder the audience’s ability to follow the story. Again, this is a positive in the sense that it contributes the overall ethos of government disarray, but it can be frustrating for those viewers interested in historical significance.

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Ultimately, American Made keeps things interesting for the duration of its tidy two-hour run-time. There is hope for those who were afraid Tom Cruise might slip into Hollywood irrelevancy, as the movie marks a strong return for the A-list actor. Cruise fans and history buffs alike will find an engaging telling of one of America’s darker chapters.

American Made is currently in theaters.