In a photograph of airline pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) smuggling drugs into an airplane with a member of the Colombian drug cartel, he is smiling directly at the camera. Likewise, it’s impossible to watch “American Made,” Cruise’s latest flick, without a smile plastered on your face. The film, based on real events that occurred during the 1970s and ’80s, explores the drug cartels and the Iran-Contra affair with such humor that the viewer can’t help but laugh along. While there are some issues with character development and pacing, “American Made” is a surefire stellar time at the cinema.
The film depicts the rise and fall of Barry Seal, who is whisked away from his everyday tedium as an airline pilot into an exciting world of drugs and weapons. Barry is recruited by Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) to work for the CIA and soon finds himself entangled with the Medellin Cartel and the White House. Barry smuggles drugs, weapons, and people from country to country and rakes in millions of dollars for himself and his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright), but things soon go awry, and he finds himself and his family in danger. The film’s plot is loosely based on the true story of a pilot named Barry Seal who flew planes for the Medellin Cartel and later became an informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Cruise unquestionably dominates “American Made” — the film allows him to bite into his role in a way that many of his recent films (“Jack Reacher: Never Go Back,” “The Mummy”) simply haven’t. Instead of playing a brave action hero, Cruise plays a typical, goofy, down-on-his-luck American who happens to stumble across some unusual lucrative opportunities. Barry’s relatability as an everyman compels the viewer to root for his success, even when he takes part in morally dubious activities. As Barry, Cruise oozes innocence, likeability and humor. You can tell that he had a blast making the film, and his commitment to the role is undeniable.
However, no other member of the cast stands out. Though Gleeson has a substantial role as Barry’s CIA contact, Monty doesn’t have much in terms of character depth. Wright serves her purpose as Barry’s beautiful, skeptical wife, but her role in the film is insignificant and her character is underdeveloped. Jesse Plemons, as Sheriff Downing, is given an ineffective subplot involving Barry’s hoodlum nephew J.B. (Caleb Landry Jones), and Jayma Mays only gets a few minutes of screentime as Dana Sibota, an attorney general prosecuting Barry.
The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, which prevents it from being a run-of-the-mill action film. Barry comedically narrates the film, taking breaks to show amusing animations which characterize the political climate at the time. Director Doug Liman doesn’t have to try too hard to create laughs, as the situations that Barry finds himself in are funny enough. Various moments featuring Barry’s interactions with the Contras (they steal his clothes and belongings at their first encounter) stand out as some of the film’s most humorous.
While “American Made” is not a typical Cruise action flick, the film boasts a couple of impressive aerial action scenes. This is not surprising, as director Liman has shown his action chops in critically-acclaimed films such as “The Bourne Identity” and “Edge of Tomorrow.” Liman blends action and comedy perfectly, particularly in a plane chase scene where Barry flees the U.S. Border Patrol. Liman also manages to inject beauty into the film, exhibiting the vibrant tropical scenery of Central America.
Unfortunately, the film struggles with pacing. “American Made” travels at breakneck speed, and I frequently waited for a break in the action. The film packs a lot into its 115-minute runtime, which is often overwhelming. That’s is especially true in the first act, which sets up the story through rapid montage scenes. While it does not undermine the movie, it is a noticeable flaw that occasionally took me out of the film.
“American Made” is a lively drama featuring Cruise at his best. While no other actors truly stand out, Cruise carries the film, making it an entertaining and compelling cinematic experience. It’s unbelievable to think that the events portrayed in the film are based on real-life situations, but it makes for an intriguing and humorous story, and it will certainly leave you smiling.