Whenever Tom Cruise appears on screen, he's playing a part. But he's usually also playing Tom Cruise. Nearly four decades into his megawatt smile-flashing career, there's no mistaking the superstar's recognisable film persona, whether he's feeling the need for speed in Top Gun or living, dying and repeating in Edge of Tomorrow. It's a role he inhabits with charm and ease, as American Made is well aware. Though he's ostensibly taking on the guise of a pilot turned CIA operative turned narcotics smuggler, this based-on-a-true-tale drama is all about showcasing Cruise's well-known talents.
That means aviator sunnies, flying high and oozing charisma all over anyone he can. It also means a cruisy (pun intended) vibe when he's stepping into criminal territory, skirting the law, transporting drugs and buddying up to Pablo Escobar's cronies. The '70s and '80s-set story may seem larger than life, but ultimately viewers know what they're getting, energetic central performance and all. If fighting the undead in The Mummy seemed like a bit of a departure for the A-lister, American Made is a beaming, smooth-talking return to familiar territory.
Starting in 1978, Cruise plays Barry Seal. He's a run-of-the-mill commercial airline captain until his illegal cigar-ferrying antics catch the attention of CIA agent Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson). Quicker than you can say "show me the way to avoid jail time", Seal agrees to quit his job, become a government consultant and take clandestine aerial surveillance photos in South America. While he's down there, he's also asked to deliver cash and trade arms by the agency — and bring back cocaine by the now-infamous Medellín cartel. It all goes well until it doesn't, as tends to be the case with these kinds of capers. And yet, even after he's caught by the Colombian authorities, forced to fill his wife (Sarah Wright) in about his new gig, and made to relocate his family to a small town in Arkansas, Seal keeps trying to work both sides to turn a profit.
"Shit gets really crazy from here," Seal tells the camera at one point, as he recounts his life story down the barrel of an '80s camcorder. And he's right. Re-teaming with Cruise after the aforementioned Edge of Tomorrow, there's no shortage of wild antics for director Doug Liman to thrust onto the screen. In fact, there's almost too many, as the film morphs into an enjoyable but somewhat repetitive mix of Blow, Goodfellas and American Hustle. For what it's worth, that applies not only to the feature's jam-packed narrative, but also to its wavering tone.
Call it the Cruise effect. Although Seal clearly isn't the greatest of guys, he's portrayed as a loveable rogue because that suits the movie's star. Call it the Hollywood effect as well, with flicks about affable law-breakers an eternal cinema staple — think War Dogs and The Wolf of Wall Street, just to name a few recent examples. American Made wants viewers to warm to its antihero and laugh at his endeavours, while also laying out the real and serious consequences of his actions. Unfortunately, it doesn't always get the balance right. Still, sunny cinematography, zippy pacing, an era-specific soundtrack and Cruise being Cruise all guarantee you'll be largely entertained regardless.