There are certain things you can generally count on in a Tom Cruise movie: running really fast, smiling winningly at ladies and hurtling around in fast cars, or on motorbikes, or in planes. Also, he’ll be topless at least once.
Cruise’s second collaboration with director Doug Liman (they previously brought us the unexpectedly great sci-fi action film, Edge Of Tomorrow), American Made requires quite a bit more from the Hollywood stars than just winning smiles and stunts – though the movie does deliver plenty of those too. Cruise plays Barry Seal, a former TWA commercial pilot who, at the behest of an enigmatic guy with a beard who calls himself Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) winds up flying planes for the CIA.
At first, Seal’s job is to simply fly reconnaissance missions over Central America, where the Agency is, as Schafer puts it “building civilisations”. Gradually, however, Seal starts a sideline in smuggling drugs from Colombia to Louisiana, the Israeli AK-47s from Arkansas to Nicaragua. In the process, Seal finds himself a pawn in a huge power game that takes in General Noriega, Pablo Escobar’s notorious drug cartel, Ronald Reagan and Oliver North.
American Made begins with the words “Based on a true story”, which is just as well, since Seal’s story becomes so outsized and so improbable that it almost defies credibility. The tone, jukebox soundtrack and structure all place the movie in the Scorsese school of crime dramas, but Liman gives the movie enough rough 70s-80s texture – all film grain, handheld cameras and golden lighting, like an old Kodak colour print – to make American Made stand on its own.
As we’ve seen in his earlier films, from Go to The Bourne Identity to this year’s The Wall, Liman’s also an astute crafter of suspense, black comedy and gasp-inducing rug-pulls: there’s a moment involving a plane, stacks of cocaine and a purloined bicycle that is as funny and bizarre as anything you’ll see in a bawdy R-rated comedy.
It’s an interesting role for Cruise, and perhaps his first real dramatic stretch since he was appearing in things like Jerry Maguire and Magnolia. Sure, he gets to wear shades and fly around in fancy jets like he’s still in Top Gun, but Seal isn’t what you’d call a dynamic character: he’s a daredevil in the cockpit, and evidently a risk-taker, but back on solid ground, he’s just a yes-man, shuttling back and forth between shark-eyed drug barons and G-men in suits and agreeing to every demand, no matter how outlandish.
Yes, American Made is another picaresque indictment of the American dream, but it is, if anything, more cynical than even Wolf Of Wall Street. Liman’s film depicts Seal’s gathering wealth and his fractious relationship with his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright, great in a role that could have done with beefing up), but this is really a back door into a bigger, even darker story: the secretive triangle between government agencies, the military and criminal organisations in Central America. Decisions that could mean the deaths of thousands elsewhere around the globe are made seemingly on a whim by young guys in offices somewhere in America; when those decisions cause all kinds of political nightmares in Washington, a couple of stooges around the periphery are thrown to the wolves while the system grinds on as normal.
Aided by Gary Spinelli’s sharp, snappily economical script, American Made tells a tall, often startling tale with pace, suspense and a mile-wide streak of grim humour. It’s another mischievous, intelligent and thrilling film from Doug Liman – arguably one of Hollywood’s most individual directors.
American Made is out in UK cinemas on the 25th August.