By Kim Hughes
It’s nobody’s idea of an action masterpiece but American Made is a blast, leveraging star Tom Cruise’s on-screen wattage and comedic sense while telling a heck of a story, one that again confirms truth is stranger than fiction.
Reunited with his Edge of Tomorrow director Doug Liman (a highly promising proposition), Cruise plays Barry Seal, a very wily real-life TWA pilot with a sense of adventure unfulfilled by short-haul flights across the Midwest. The time is the late 1970s and the Cold War persists.
Approached by the CIA to gather photographic intel on South American spots vulnerable to the Commie threat, Seal quits TWA to fly a twin-engine loaded with sophisticated camera equipment. Seal’s profile as a hotshot pilot with free access into and out of the U.S. catches the attention of the notorious Medellín Cartel, who persuade Seal to transport their product Stateside.
Before long, Seal is working both for the nefarious Colombians and the DEA. He’s also yanked into the clusterfuck of the U.S. government’s involvement in the Nicaraguan Revolution, delivering guns to the American-backed Contras to battle the Sandinistas. Well, he is until it becomes clear his Colombian pals have better uses for automatic weapons than their rather ambivalent Nicaragua brethren. Things simply can’t go on like this forever.
A concurrent and highly engaging story arc follows Seal and wife Lucy as they set up in tiny Mena, Arkansas at the government’s behest, struggling to maintain a more-or-less workaday facade while coping with the bags and bags and bags of illegal cash Seal’s drug smuggling brings in.
Part of the movie’s charm is its attention to period detail: Seal standing at a bank of pay phones with a fistful of quarters juggling the various lines; the sight of a souped-up Gremlin; footage of Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s knuckleheaded pronouncements about the ‘War on Drugs.’
Liman and Cruise make Seal a likable if inscrutable guy — why would a respected and well-remunerated pilot with a growing family jump into such fraught circumstances? But the audience isn’t larded with much time to ponder. Daring flight sequences dominate (all executed by amateur pilot Cruise himself, apparently) and there’s plenty of laughs. Plus, Cruise can carry a movie and not just as an action hero but as an everyman, which is fairly astonishing when you think about it.
The closing frames, which chronicle what happened to the real-life players after the house of cards fell, feels slapdash compared the film’s tightly constructed narrative. But that’s a small complaint in an otherwise solid popcorn-friendly action/adventure. The Mummy isn’t quite forgiven but Cruise is clearly making amends. That’s enough.
American Made. Directed by Doug Liman. Starring Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, and Sarah Wright. Opens wide Friday (September 29).