Tom Cruise Loses his Cool as a Bumbling True-Life Drug Runner
DIRECTED BY DOUG LIMAN/2017
We all know Tom Cruise. Sharp. In control. Magnetic. The best at what he does. (“What he does” including but not limited to his own stunts.)
So then, who’s this guy?
Cruise plays Barry Seal, a TWA pilot in late 1970s without a lot of sense but a secure job that supports his family. When Seal’s hush-hush side gig of smuggling illegal cigars into the United States gets him picked up by a young-but-disgruntled CIA agent called Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), his life changes in ways he could never imagine. The reason he could never imagine it is primarily because Seal isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. Rather than incarceration, he’s offered his own nifty plane in exchange for making clandestine runs to Central America. Being the opportunist that he is, his little interactions with an up-and-coming Manuel Noriega soon evolves into running large bundles of drugs back home for some truly infamous cartel leaders. Seal quickly becomes one wealthy dim-wit, literally tossing bundles of spare cash at his problems. He’s in over his head, and too snow blinded by all the cocaine and money flooding into his life. Needless to say, for a guy who was top gun in the mid-1980’s, this is a far different Tom Cruise.
The story behind American Made is an incendiary tale by any measure, implicating the CIA and the Reagan White House as complicit in Seal’s extensive drug running venture. According to the film, the U.S. government even provided him with a zippy little plane, an airstrip, and a sizable chunk of land on which to operate. All they asked in return was the occasional supply drop to the era’s “freedom fighters”, and use of the land for in-country training of numerous Contras. (Many of whom were keen to disappear into America.) Not a problem, boss!
Like Johnny Depp’s character in Blow, cash is pouring in so quickly that Seal and his wife (Sarah Wright, half Cruise’s age) literally run out of places to stash it. Like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in The Wolf of Wall Street, he’s having a blast while being crooked in a major way. Unlike DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, Seal is depicted to be a faithful husband, in some ways sending American Made down an even dicier path than Wolf details, in that audience members caught up in the raw, undeniable charm of our protagonist might rationalize that Cruise’s Seal isn’t really such a bad guy. Through it all, he’s looking out for his marriage, his kids, and his employees. When his no-good bum of a confederate flag-loving brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) shows up and nearly tanks everything with his juggernaut of stupidity, Seal even bends over backwards for the clown. He’s family.
As far as movie stars who’ve been happily embedded in their own cultivated persona, Tom Cruise has deviated less often than titans Clint Eastwood or John Wayne. The movies themselves have been riskier, having worked with the likes of Stanley Kubrick, Paul Thomas Anderson and Brian De Palma – but Cruise, all the while, has remained cool under pressure. An alpha dog set to bite his way back to the top. The first notable exception was his villainous turn in Michael Mann’s 2004 Collateral. But even as a murderous hitman with powder grey hair, it was his unyielding self-assurance that made him such a convincing threat.
Only Doug Liman (Mr. And Mrs. Smith, The Bourne Identity) for whatever reason, has been able to lure Cruise into lead roles that utterly defy his decades-running type. Of all the many filmmakers the actor has worked with, Liman, for whatever reason, has been the only director to do so. Their previous collaboration, 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow aka Live Die Repeat aka All You Need is Kill, was so off the hook that it’s yet to settle on a title. The fact, though, that it rendered Cruise as a coward was by far the most unusual aspect of that film. Though not a box office hit, Edge of Tomorrow has been widely acclaimed as a good bit of rip-roaring sci-fi satisfaction.
Now we have American Made, a subsequent team-up that dares to boldly go considerably further. Liman imbues this true story, one of most serious consequences, with a spirit of comedic shenanigans to match it’s stated factual outlandishness. The film ends up being a satisfying can-you-believe-that?? ride, completely in spite of a first third that couldn’t feel more hollow. Offering zero initial insight on who Barry Seal is beyond his TWA job, American Made finds itself immediately coasting on Cruise’s star power, in the exact wrong movie to be doing so. It’s not until the plot kicks in fully, with all it’s wild shifts, twists, and directorial flourishes to match, does the movie find itself as a film.
American Made is both too rough and tumble and too much of a hot potato to ever be any kind of serious year-end awards contender. It is, however, a contender for some of the single most amusing movie moments of the year. American Made isn’t Tom Cruise’s finest hour – the accent alone assures that, but it is a most interesting step outside of his well crafter comfort zone. In some ways, this may be his greatest stunt yet.