Narration over freezeframes. Ironic news footage. Dress-up-box wigs and outfits. Yep, you know what to expect from based-on-a-true-story caper American Made. From the genre’s preferred stylistic tics to the American Dream-turned-nightmare arc, we’re in familiar territory.
It’s a relief then, that Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman tell Barry Seal’s story with such energy and panache. And what an unbelievable story it is. The kind you’d dismiss as too far-fetched if it didn’t come with that ‘based on true events’ tag. Cruise might be back in the aviator shades and soaring at breakneck speeds, but this ain’t no Top Gun 2.
Seal is a plum role for Cruise, fully utilising his charismatic grin but also reasserting his character-actor chops after a string of big-budget outings predominantly playing spins on his action-man persona. When we first meet Seal in the late ’70s, he’s a commercial airline pilot, earning a few extra bucks on the side by smuggling Cuban cigars. His illegal activities attract the attention of CIA bod Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), who enlists Seal and his flying skills to take covert photos of South American insurgents.
The missions are a success, but Seal’s looking for more cash, so naturally pounces on the lucrative drug-running opportunity presented by the fledgling Medellín Cartel. He soon becomes an international contraband-smuggling brand unto himself, with a fleet of planes in his own hangar, CIA-sponsored insurgents training on his land, and more banknotes than he can hide in his sizeable family home.
While there’s much pleasure to be had in Cruise’s swaggering charm in the early scenes, it’s a performance of more than just bluster. He nails Seal’s nervy, out-of-his-depth unease, while maintaining a wide-eyed likeability that keeps you rooting for him (and just about believing that his lenient wife would put up with his antics).
It also feels like the first time in ages that Cruise has had the chance to be properly funny; the sight of him dusted head-to-toe in cocaine, pedalling furiously on a child’s pushbike, is not easily forgotten. Whether he’s bluffing his way through cartel meetings, making a dicey take-off that sees him barrelling through treetops, or documenting his story in video messages when things start to go sour, he holds almost every frame of the film.
Fittingly for such a dizzying tale, Liman keeps things moving at a clip. Any part of the story that can be told as a montage, is. Seal and his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), produce a child in a matter of a few quick cuts, and the increasing age of their kids is one way in which you can keep a handle on the timeline (the glaring title cards indicating the date and the location being another, more obvious way). It’s as if Liman only slows down for the funniest/scariest/most jaw-dropping anecdotes.
It means that the supporting cast get limited scenes to make an impact, but some do make the most of their modest screen time. Gleeson is reliably great value as the sinister but charming CIA suit who shows up and disappears like a ghost, and Wright makes an impression in what’s frequently a thankless role in this sort of film.
Liman previously directed Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow, one of the latter’s most enjoyable non-Mission films in recent years. Where that hi-sci-fi-concept saw Cruise trapped in a live, die, repeat spin-cycle, the trajectory of American Made is altogether more linear, but just as inescapable.
As soon as Caleb Landry Jones shows up, exuding a reptilian sleaziness as Seal’s brother-in-law, Bubba, you can chart the course we’re heading on. Predictable as it might be, Liman still ratchets up considerable tension, as Seal’s relationships with the CIA, DEA and cartel are strained to breaking point. Despite the global reach of the operation, it all begins to feel mightily claustrophobic.
Seal’s wild shenanigans are given an additional frisson of danger by Cruise’s commitment to the flying scenes, including one particularly nerve-jangling cargo-drop technique that the actor did for real while his plane was on autopilot. Those moments pin you to the very edge of your seat, with Liman’s dog-eared style making for a film that still manages to feel somewhat unpredictable, even within a very familiar template. Yes, it might be the kind of story that you’ve seen a million times before, but there’s enough pace and invention to make it worth another go.