Updated: Feb 5, 2020
Tom Cruise is a very charismatic actor. He clearly knows this and tends to choose roles that allow him to best exploit that gift. In his latest film, the based on a true story drama American Made, Cruise stars as Barry Seal, a commercial airline pilot/drug runner who gets recruited to do covert work for the CIA taking reconnaissance photos. He uses this as an opportunity to get involved in even more dangerous (and lucrative) work with some very dangerous people (most notably the Medellin Cartel). The film seems unsure as to whether this makes Barry a hero, a villain, or something in-between (Barry definitely thinks he is a hero). The film does not seem particularly sure of a lot of things, yet Cruise is still able to keep things watchable. Without him, there is no movie.
Barry Seal seems like an interesting guy. His life (or at least the eight years of it that this film covers) was full of excitement. I can certainly understand why they wanted to turn it into a movie. And in Tom Cruise, they cast a guy who could effortlessly turn Barry into a complex anti-hero. Unfortunately, that complexity never made it into the screenplay.
American Made (107 minutes without the end credits) dives headlong into Barry’s life right from the start (the sentence long synopsis I gave covers about the first ten minutes of the movie). It shows what he did without showing who he was. It is very fast-paced, but never bothers to actually tell a story. The film is just a series of events from his time working for the CIA. There is not a plot to really sink your teeth into. Additionally, Barry is a surprisingly passive protagonist for a story like this. A passive protagonist has things happen to him. An active protagonist happens to things. Here, he just seems to fall into one situation after another. Since we never really learn much about him, there is no context. It just becomes one damn thing after another.
American Made bounces back and forth between Barry’s adventures as a pilot and his home life with his frustrated, but loving, wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) and their children (I’m not sure if it is intended to be a joke or just lazy structuring, but every time Barry returns home it seems like they have added a child). Lucy’s only role in the screenplay (written by Gary Spinelli) is to be someone that Barry can come home to. She gets to be the token wife.
The second most important character in the film is Schafer, the CIA agent who recruits Barry and acts as his handler. Schafer is played by Domhnall Gleeson, a very capable actor (check out his work in the 2014 sci-fi film Ex Machina), who is able to bring some wit to the role. However, Schafer is just a plot device to get Barry working for the CIA and then, occasionally, to get him out of trouble. He is supposed to be somewhat mysterious, but for what purpose? There is no payoff and nothing about him is ever revealed. Much like the movie as a whole, it feels like he is there because something had to be.
American Made is being positioned as a return to form for Tom Cruise. It is the type of role he is perfect for: a cocky bad-boy, with a good heart and low morals. But he is stranded in a movie where a lot goes on, but nothing really happens. The film was directed by Doug Liman, who has had success with fast-paced action movies in the past (including the Cruise starring Edge of Tomorrow). But he is not able to come up with anything exciting or fun this time around. He’s got a solid performance from Tom Cruise, a handful of clever moments and nothing else.
American Made had a good trailer. A trailer is a collection of moments designed to make you want to see the full movie. The movie feels like that trailer extended by about an hour and forty-five minutes.
2½ out of 5
Tom Cruise as Barry Seal
Domhnall Gleeson as Schafer
Sarah Wright as Lucy Seal
Caleb Landry Jones as JB
Alejandro Edda as Jorge Ochoa
Directed by Doug Liman
Written by Gary Spinelli