American Made is a movie about Barry Seal, a former TWA pilot who smuggled weapons for the Contras and cocaine for the Medellín Cartel in the 1980s. Well, ostensibly it’s about Barry Seal. American Made, like all movies starring Tom Cruise, is actually about Tom Cruise.
I don’t think there’s a single scene in the movie that doesn’t feature Cruise flashing his famous billboard grin; looking boyish as ever, he scurries and sweats across each frame like the most tenacious kid in movie-star class, working his little tail off to make sure that you are having a darn good time at the picture show.
Cruise isn’t just an actor in American Made—he’s credited as a stunt pilot, too, and director Doug Liman uses his Bourne Identity shaky cam to create some pretty exciting flight sequences. In a lot of ways, the movie plays like a spiritual sequel to Top Gun: What would Maverick do after his days in the navy are through? How would he feed his adrenaline-junkie cravings?
According to the movie, Seal made an arrangement with the CIA via the mysterious Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson, miscast here but still a joy to watch) to bring guns to Nicaragua. But what the CIA didn’t know is that after Seal delivered the weapons, he’d load up his plane with Pablo Escobar’s finest product and bring it back to the United States. Long stretches of the movie are essentially Scorsese-esque montages of decadence, with Seal delivering the goods and accumulating more cash than he can fit into his house.
And yet there’s something innocent about it all, perhaps because Cruise has the ability to play someone who’s in the middle of a vast criminal enterprise but still seems like a Boy Scout. We never see Seal dip into Escobar’s product or be guilty of any real moral failing other than wanting something exciting to do.
The movie’s a bit of a mess, but it does enough things really well that it’s always fun to watch. Cruise’s strengths are front and center, and despite the movie depicting a seedy world of drugs, weapons, and bad 1980s fashion, it’s essentially a fairy tale for excitement-loving boys. And there’s no one better than Cruise’s ageless, wrinkle-free Prince Charming to waltz us through it.