Tom Cruise burst onto the movie world’s consciousness with a daring mix of sly charm and wicked humor in 1983, when he starred in “Risky Business.” In that film, he played a shy and nerdy high school senior who came out of his shell by turning his home into a brothel for his classmates while his parents were away for the weekend — only to run afoul of a killer pimp named Guido.
“Risky” was filled with salaciousness, but lurking underneath its amoral surface was a dark cautionary tale of how money and greed can trump one’s normal personality and values.
His new movie, “American Made,” marks a big and intriguing change of pace for Cruise, recounting the controversial story of Barry Seal, a former airline pilot who was recruited by both the CIA and the Medellin drug cartel in the 1980s to make dangerous secret flights that were utterly at cross purposes with each other.
Tom Cruise plays Seal with a thick Southern accent and a con artist’s charm, but also shows him as a caring father and husband who is scared when his actions start to threaten his family’s well-being. As such, it’s a long overdue reminder that this guy can pull off complex roles with flair.
Seal was a small-time hustler, smuggling Cuban cigars into midsize American cities through his airline gig when the CIA recruited him to run spy missions over war-torn Central America. After getting shot down by rebels, he was offered a lot more money to fly cocaine into the U.S. by the Medellin cartel.
Barry needs lots of money since his wife keeps getting pregnant, so he decides to work for both sides with each not knowing about the other. When the CIA ropes him into smuggling weapons to Contra rebels in Nicaragua, they buy him a 2,000-acre property complete with his own small airport outside the sleepy town of Mena, Arkansas.
But when his sleazy brother-in-law JB shows up unexpectedly, Barry’s carefully constructed and overpacked schedule starts to fall apart.
“American Made” is a hugely entertaining and unpredictable blend of “Wolf of Wall Street” and a Southern-fried “Goodfellas,” showing the rise and fall of a decent guy who is brought down by his greed.
Thankfully, director Doug Liman (who guided Cruise in “Edge of Tomorrow” and helmed “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “The Bourne Identity”) exercises tasteful restraint in its depictions of violence. Barry and his wife are seen engaged in a couple of scenes of reckless behavior together, such as having sex while he flies a private plane, but they keep their clothes on and the couple are also seen as genuinely loving and concerned both for each other and their children.
The main reason for its R rating is the subject matter of Barry smuggling drugs and being amoral in his pursuit of money, and for the film’s foul language. The screenplay by Barry Spinelli expertly walks the line between sly humor, ace action and an unpredictable plotline that should keep viewers on the edge of their seats.
Liman adds impressive emotional depth and plot complexity to what could have been a simple action movie. The movie has a gritty, lived-in look and wicked sense of humor throughout, yet also conveys the paranoia Barry starts to face as things go south.
All told, “American Made” shows that if truth isn’t stranger than fiction, it’s certainly more entertaining than the fiction we’ve been offered by Hollywood lately. It’s easily one of the best and most entertaining movies of the year so far.