The Sterling Standard in Movie Reviews 

Follow Us On:


 Cruise in Control

Tom Cruise
Tom Cruise
Universal Pictures
 115 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Doug Liman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson 
American Made

If Tom Cruise’s iconic Maverick character from Top Gun had decided to leave the United States Navy a few years before the events in that film and become a commercial pilot instead, he might have resembled Cruise’s Barry Seal in American Made. Not the real Barry Seal, mind you, but the fictionalized version of Seal tailored to fit Cruise’s Maverick persona in a plot that’s largely been sanitized of its seamier elements in favor of a light-hearted goofball romp. It’s those decisions by director Doug Liman and screenwriter Gary Spinelli that make American Made a largely enjoyable romp but, at the same time, keep it from being the type of classic tragedy that might have netted Cruise some acting awards.


Barry Seal was a former commercial pilot who became a major cocaine importer for the Colombian Medellin cartel in the early 1980’s. Seal’s smuggling made him rich (he earned $60 million a year at the height of his success), but, when he was finally arrested, he did what so many other criminals do, informed on his former employers. It was a decision that eventually cost him his life. The real life Seal was not averse to taking enormous risks, but he was less of an adventurer and more of a businessman without any sort of moral compass. In other words, the real Seal was the type of character who often frequents Martin Scorsese mob films.


However, because Tom Cruise attached himself to the project at a very early stage, the script of American Made instead paints Seal in Cruise’s image. Bored with the life of a commercial pilot, the movie’s version of Seal agrees to work for the CIA photographing sensitive guerrilla installations in Central and South America at very low altitudes. Eventually, he comes to the attention of the Medellin cartel and agrees to smuggle drugs for them on the return trips following his CIA missions.


While the CIA isn’t all that concerned about Seal’s drug smuggling, other law enforcement agencies do go after him, causing him to pull up stakes and move to a small town in Arkansas. There, his CIA handler, Monte Schaffer (a completely fictional character played by Domhnall Gleeson) sets Seal up in business in exchange for helping the Agency run guns to the Contras in Nacaragua. Eventually, Seal works out a complicated smuggling scheme involving the Contras and the cartel that resulted in few guns actually getting to the Contras but lots of money for Seal and his associates.


Seal’s empire soon starts to crumble, however, first when his exceedingly dumb, prototypically redneck brother-in-law JB (Caleb Landry Jones) moves into town and gets a job as a glorified gofer. JB, however, fancies himself a criminal genius and gets into immediate trouble with the law. Eventually, embarrassments like JB’s mistakes and the failure of the Contras lead the CIA to cut ties with Seal, leading to his arrest. Undeterred by these setbacks, Seal makes a deal with Oliver North (yes, that Oliver North) to manufacture evidence showing a link between the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and the Medellin cartel. Needless to say, the cartel doesn’t take kindly to that.


What’s most noticeable about Tom Cruise’s performance in nearly every scene of American Made are the mega-wattage vintage Cruise smile and the swagger. His version of Seal gladly immerses himself in the web of intrigue involving the cartel and the CIA simply because it’s an exciting challenge. The money that comes out of it is simply a trophy, an acknowledgement that he’s proved he has the right stuff. In fact, Seal winds up with so much money that neither the local banks nor the hiding places in his house can hold it all, and he’s reduced to burying bags in the backyard, not that he’s all that worried.


Cruise and director Doug Liman play pretty much every scene in the same cocksure, devil-may-care manner, and, the irony is that, no matter how much he swaggers, Barry Seal is a terrific pilot and a shrewd tactician, figuring out the best ways of smuggling drugs in and flying under the radar, in more ways than one. Seal manages to fly or talk his way out of trouble continually, leading to some very hilarious, darkly humorous scenes such as one in which Seal crashes his plane in a residential neighborhood in order to avoid capture and must abandon the plane and borrow a child’s bicycle to make his escape (like many of the most outrageous scenes in American Made, this one is complete fiction). 


 Liman contributes to the film’s general light touch with a directing style that’s breezy and cartoonish, incorporating crude maps and titles, vintage stock footage and a jaunty Cruise voiceover narration in spots (via inserts from videotapes supposedly made by Seal shortly before his death). The pair manage to keep the movie light even when hints of the real violent nature of the cartel’s activities surfaces. Further, American Made takes a highly political stance, portraying the Contras as hapless idiots looking for American swag and an opportunity to flee to the United States. There is little historical basis for the film’s assertion that Seal was a CIA operative the entire time he ran drugs, but it makes for a more entertaining movie.


And that’s the weakness of American Made. No matter how folksy the Cruise charm, how bright the smile, or how light a touch Liman can apply, at heart, the story of Seal is not that far removed from many similar Mob histories. Cruise and Liman are never quite able to disguise that fact among all the frivolity, and the film’s politicking gets a bit too intrusive in spots as well, going overboard a bit too much in its portrayal of the fictional Schaffer. Absent an accurate historical context or any real serious moments, the movie becomes nothing more that a series of comic episodes with Seal as a solo version of the Duke brothers in The Dukes of Hazzard.


Tom Cruise and Doug Liman collaborated earlier on Edge of Tomorrow, arguably Cruise’s best movie this century. That film struck the right balance between flippant and serious. American Made goes a bit overboard on the side of flippancy, but there’s no denying that Liman has the ability to bring out the liveliest performances from Tom Cruise. Most of Cruise’s recent movies have been attempts by the 50-something actor to show audiences that his body is immune from the normal laws of aging. Here, he seems to have regained the charismatic touch that marked so many of his early movies and made him a star in the first place. That charisma makes American Made far more fun than its real life counterpart and reminds us why Tom Cruise became a star in the first place.

In this scene, Tom Cruise takes drastic steps to avoid capture.

Read other reviews of American Made:


American Made (2017) on IMDb