The story must have proven irresistible to Tom Cruise: The tale of Barry Seal is dangerous, charged with high-flying action and utterly ridiculous — and it’s all true.
Or as true as any biopic black-comedy adventure, served up with a healthy dose of cynicism about the opportunities that America affords, should be.
“American Made” plays like “Goodfellas” meets “Smokey and the Bandit,” with Cruise playing a character who can’t help but smile as he asks his videocamera a question — Is this a great country or what? — to which he already knows the answer.
It’s “Goodfellas” in its (dis)organized crime adventures, family upheaval and rise-and-fall storyline, and “Smokey and the Bandit” in that Cruise spends much of the film transporting illegal goods, one step ahead of the law and chuckling as ’70s tunes set the soundtrack.
And he’s doing it all in the name of the good ol’ U.S. of A, even when he’s flying drugs to Pablo Escobar and his Medillin cartel; or guns to the Contras to fight the Sandinistas; or making hand-shake deals with Manuel Noriega.
And even when he’s flying rebels to a backwoods airstrip in Mena, Arkansas, for military training, in events so government-satire in nature that some locals should remember well.
The outrageous exploits make the presentation a natural for fast-paced energy and hijinks, and Cruise looks like he’s having the time of his life hustling everyone, including himself at times.
In an opening scene that feels phony but sets the tone, we see Barry (Cruise) as a TWA pilot in 1978 who shakes up his jetliner full of mostly sleeping passengers with a “Sorry folks, turbulence” announcement and a sneaky smile.
This is a rascal who wants more excitement than his steady airline job affords. He also wants more money, too, for his family.
Both become available when a CIA agent (Domhnall Gleeson as a spook without a conscience but dry humor in full supply) aware of his flying skills makes the pilot a proposition.
Let us set you up with your own aviation company, he tells Barry, flying the best planes available, in which you’ll also make covert trips over Central America, taking fly-low photos of “enemies of democracy” for your country.
That would be insurgents, drug lords and more, allowing Cruise to perform life-and-death escapes and pull off twin-engine jet derring-do that must be second-nature to the actor by now.
And for which there’s a deep appreciation for the real stunt-work and the lack of CGI fakery.
It was clearly a good idea for Cruise to re-team with director Doug Liman, as “Edge of Tomorrow” and this film offer the actor’s best performances of the past decade that don’t come in “Mission: Impossible” movies.
His huge on-screen presence (Will the man who’s now 55 ever look that age?) props up “American Made” even when the narrative struggles to balance the depiction of U.S. foreign policy mistakes of the past with it’s we’re-having-a-good-time style.
It’s almost enough to forgive the age difference between Cruise and the lovely Sarah Wright Olsen as his wife, as the leggy blonde was born the same year that Cruise exploded with “Risky Business” in 1983.
But even that is humorous in a hard-to-believe kind of manner, like most of “American Made.”