Whether it’s the challenge of playing against type or the allure of wowing audiences with their range, some of Hollywood’s most bankable stars have often turned to roles as lovable crooks to keep their careers fresh. Think Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, a tour-de-force performance that saw the hero of Titanic and Inception not simply play a villain but a morally bankrupt real-life stockbroker. That film ultimately earned DiCaprio critical raves and an Oscar nomination. So, one can hardly blame Tom Cruise for taking on the life of airline-pilot-turned-drug-smuggler Barry Seal in his latest film, American Made.
Reteaming Cruise with director Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow), the film chronicles Seal’s rise and fall as he’s recruited by a mysterious CIA agent (Domhnall Gleeson) and becomes increasingly embroiled in the Medellín drug cartel. Along the way, he earns the attention of numerous government agencies, as he struggles to keep his family life intact.
At first glance, the inherent setup of American Made has a ton of potential to deliver either a rollicking thriller or a breezy crime caper. Unfortunately, Liman and screenwriter Gary Spinelli attempt to tow the line between the two disparate genres, leaving American Made feeling more underwhelming than anything else.
Spanning nearly a decade, the story admittedly takes great liberties with Seal’s story. However, as the character gets deeper and deeper, American Made retains an episodic tone that’s only perpetuated by the regular title cards marking Barry’s shifting allegiances. From each segment to the next, the film follows an all too familiar trajectory, offering little development for its lead character as he continues to risk his life and everything he’s (illegally) built.
With so little emotional development for Barry, viewers may discover that it’s difficult to empathize with his plight. Moreover, as previously mentioned, American Made doesn’t lean full-on into comedy, either. So there aren’t enough laughs to withstand the film or position it as a kind of satire of the “American Dream gone awry” subgenre.
To his credit, Cruise lends his natural charisma to the part. His Barry has a roguish charm to him that’s undeniably due to the actor himself moreso than anything in Spinelli’s script. The fact that Cruise has headlined five globe-trotting Mission: Impossible adventures certainly plays into his ability to ground the character, even though the film focuses perhaps too much on covering each step of Barry’s journey.
In recent years, Cruise has been determined to take on more morally ambiguous heroes, from his weaselly character in Edge of Tomorrow to the self-absorbed adventurer he plays in this year’s The Mummy. Barry Seal feels right at home with those two, robbing the performance of some of the impact he might otherwise have made. For lack of a better term, this is “grey Cruise,” a label that fits not only the 55-year-old actor’s penchant for anti-heroes but also his unwillingness to abdicate his action hero status.
Not that American Made fits easily alongside Cruise’s existing action filmography, either. In other hands, the movie could have just as easily wound up being a run-of-the-mill action thriller, and the filmmakers deserve to be commended for taking a more ambitious route, especially since Cruise is more than capable of selling that version of the pic. What’s disappointing is that it doesn’t embrace the more madcap side of Barry’s tale, aside from having Cruise periodically interrupt with brief commentary. Part of this hesitation stems from the reality of Barry’s life and the film’s attempt to marry two very different tones.
Since American Made is exclusively focused on Barry, its fate ultimately rests on both Cruise and the story at hand, but because Cruise is in just about every scene, there’s limited opportunity to explore the full scope of the jam-packed story. American Made shoots past so many developments that viewers may find themselves whisked away on another tangent just as they start to come to grips with what Barry’s gotten involved with. Because it moves so fast, events that are supposed to have weight wind up barely registering, which is precisely why a wholly comedic approach would have been more befitting the film’s flippant tone.
In addition, there’s also hardly any room for the supporting cast to shine. Sarah Wright probably does the best with what she’s given as Barry’s long-suffering and far-too-patient wife, but even receives almost zero development beyond her role as a support system for her corrupt husband. Other familiar faces – like Jesse Plemons (Black Mass), Jayma Mays (Glee) and Caleb Landry Jones (X-Men: First Class) – pop up briefly, but none of them receive enough to do. If American Made had featured, say, Mays’ attorney in an antagonistic role, maybe the film could have built some more forward momentum.
Overall, this isn’t a bad movie, just one that feels at odds with itself. Despite its flaws though, American Made is a fun enough ride and features yet another winsome Cruise performance. Those who go in with high expectations for R-rated shenanigans to ensue might want to think twice before they buy a ticket for American Made (chances are, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is playing down the hall). But fans of the actor with a couple of hours to kill just might get their money’s worth.
Following The Mummy, American Made is easily the best Tom Cruise film of 2017, though it never strikes quite the right tone for the story it's trying to tell.