Review by C.J. Bunce
Once again Tom Cruise proves he can’t make a bad action movie. This Friday his latest, American Made, opens in theaters nationwide. It is absolutely a Tom Cruise movie for anyone that loves Tom Cruise movies, and everyone else will find a 1980s flashback blast waiting for them. Cruise has had starring or recognizable roles in 42 movies. As with star actors like John Wayne and Arnold Schwarzenegger, many expect to see Cruise play Cruise in every new film, but that’s not quite what happens. Like many actors you can bundle their performances into categories, although it’s easy to find some overlap. There are Cruise’s cocky maverick hotshots in Jack Reacher, Collateral, Mission: Impossible, Days of Thunder, Rain Man, Cocktail, The Color of Money, and The Outsiders. That’s a bit different Cruise than the renegades of Top Gun, Oblivion, Valkyrie, Minority Report, Born on the Fourth of July, and The Last Samurai. But that’s not the Cruise you’ll find in American Made. This is Cruise as flawed, cavalier everyman–and a bit of a dope–the kind of roles you could see Gary Cooper or Kevin Costner cast in. Early buzz suggests this new role is Cruise as cocky maverick hotshot, but that’s only on the surface because he’s playing a pilot. In American Made you’ll find the more casual but layered Cruise of War of the Worlds, Far and Away, Edge of Tomorrow, A Few Good Men, The Firm, and Jerry Maguire. This is also the more likeable, more relatable Cruise persona.
Cruise’s character Barry Seal was a real person who fell into some crazy, impossibly outlandish situations as a pilot in the 1970s and 1980s. This isn’t a true biography–the real events in Seal’s life are far different than as portrayed in the first half of the film, but the second half tracks much closer. The Barry Seal of the film begins as a well-trained pilot that gets bored with the mundane. He starts small, smuggling cigars from Cuba into the states while a TWA pilot. Then a CIA agent named Schafer catches him and offers him a deal: Seal’s evasive techniques are perfect to take spy photos in Central America. For Seal it beats boredom, and it’s a breeze for him, despite the frequent heavy gunfire. Seal gets in deep but never really seems to understand how deep, because underneath what would appear to be your typical hotshot pilot is that bit of a dope. He is so clueless he can’t fathom that his wife, played by Sarah Wright Olsen (Parks and Recreation, Enchanted, 7th Heaven), won’t respond affirmatively that she trusts him when he gives her a smile and asks “do you trust me?” Twice. He’s actually taken aback, despite the impossible situation he drags his wife into (like Jerry Maguire trying to convince his new girlfriend that all isn’t as bad as it seems). And his new pal list includes Manuel Noriega.
CIA agent Schafer (an amalgam of agents the real-life Seal had worked with) is played by Domhnall Gleeson (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ex Machina, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). Gleeson is a ringer for Timothy Busfield in Field of Dreams or Sneakers and has great chemistry with Cruise–and he’s surprisingly strong directing the much older Cruise’s actions in scene after scene despite his youth. Together Schafer and Seal build-up some CIA successes, but Seal has a growing family and needs some extra money on the side–and Schafer isn’t providing more money–so the CIA success is coupled with Seal’s casual assistance in the rise of the Medellin Cartel as he begins smuggling cocaine. The DEA learns about it and Seal bounces back and forth, playing for both sides, ultimately smuggling weapons for the White House and Ollie North in what became the Iran-Contra scandal. And then the FBI gets involved. And all the while Seal literally can’t figure out what to do with all his proceeds from his smuggling, burying some piles of cash in the yard, his wife stuffing shoe boxes full of money in closets, after buying up much of the small town they arrive at in Arkansas.
Amazingly enough the 55-year-old Cruise playing 38- to 46-year-old Barry Seal seems natural for the actor who still looks as young as he appeared in his 40s. And Cruise’s performance is believable as a middle-aged guy married to 33-year-old actress Sarah Wright Olsen–she holds her own easily playing Seal’s wife, at one point knocking him to the ground for uprooting her, her kids, and a new one on the way. Cruise is well-known as a pilot, flying retired fighter craft, and this adds ease to the production since he is actually the guy flying and landing planes in the film. The film has a big overtone of humor, despite the drug lords and rifles and lives at stake. That’s thanks to a funny script by Gary Spinelli, the confident stylish look (even tucking in some explanatory animation graphics and scribbles along the way) by big-action film director Doug Liman (the Jason Bourne film series, Edge of Tomorrow, Swingers) and cinematography by César Charlone (City of God, The Constant Gardener). It has a good score by Christophe Beck (Ant-Man, Edge of Tomorrow, The Muppets, RED, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but is also populated by great music of the day, the best is the use of Louis Clark’s “Hooked on Classics,” which really sets the time period, plus The Big Apple Band’s “A Fifth of Beethoven,” The Allman Brothers “One Way Out,” and Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou.”
American Made is Cruise as smuggler Han Solo (the goofy Han of The Empire Strikes Back and The Force Awakens, not the ruthless guy who shot Greedo). It’s Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can meets Matt Damon in The Informant!with Mel Gibson in Air America and maybe a bit of Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco.
For people who don’t like Cruise, American Made won’t be for them. But they’ll be missing a good action flick with some good humor. Everyone else can add this to their list of better Tom Cruise movies.
Catch American Made in theaters opening this Friday, September 29, starring Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright Olsen, with Jesse Plemons (Paul, Breaking Bad, Fargo), Caleb Landry Jones (Twin Peaks, X-Men: First Class, Breaking Bad), Jayma Mays (Heroes, Glee), Alejandro Edda (Fear the Walking Dead), Jed Rees (Galaxy Quest, Deadpool, Chuck, The X-Files), and Star Trek: Enterprise’s Connor Trinneer in a funny cameo as George W. Bush.