Director Doug Liman has admitted that American Made, his latest movie with Tom Cruise, is intended to be making fun of the actor. The film follows Barry Seal, an airline pilot bored with his humdrum life whose attempts to add excitement lead his down an increasingly intense, fraught and exciting rabbit hole - from smuggling cigars to working for the CIA to working for Pablo Escobar and so much more.
That constant upping the ante may seem rather familiar when linked to Cruise. After all, he started off as a pretty boy star, gradually morphing into an actor with a famous love of doing his own increasingly grand stunts (for this film alone he flew in many of the aerial chases). With American Made marking a return to semi-serious drama after a string of genre and tentpole fare (most recently Dark Universe franchise non-stater The Mummy), is this also a self-aware analysis of the actor's career? Actually, to a degree, yes.
Doug Liman talked with Metro for the release of American Made and talked about how the film was intended to spear Cruise's ironclad public personna:
"What’s really extraordinary about Tom is his willingness to jump into roles like Barry Seal. It’s not a movie star role, he [Seal] is decidedly not a hero. Part of my attraction to casting Tom Cruise in American Made was that you think of Tom Cruise and airplanes, you immediately think of Top Gun. For American Made, they’re using crappier airplanes, and his character is crappier. It was like 'let’s poke fun at the whole Tom Cruise image!' It’s not a sketch, he is an extraordinary actor and in a way American Made takes him back to his roots. He made his name off of films like Risky Business, where he plays a high school student starting a brothel! Barry Seal is closer to that than the franchise roles he’s been playing as of late."
Cruise and Liman first worked together on 2014's Edge of Tomorrow and will reunite for the planned sequel Live Die Repeat and Repeat (an extension of the film's home video name). That makes The Bourne Identity filmmaker one of three highly-trusted directors in Cruise's inner circle - as well as Jack Reacher/Mission: Impossible's Christopher McQuarrie and Oblivion/Top Gun 2: Maverick's Joseph Kosinski - and so in a prime position to not only reign in the star's legendary ego (something that reportedly hampered The Mummy) but perhaps have a bit of fun with it.
Indeed, having Cruise play a guy very much on the backfoot and completely out of his depth is definitely a different type of role for an actor marked by equal charisma and confidence, especially with the connections to his previous work that Liman highlights. And, despite being based on a true story, Barry Seal's rise and eventual fall mirror much of its star's position in Hollywood (it also allows him to finally play a character closer to his age, even if the real Seal died at 46, seven years younger than the man playing him).
The film doesn't go the full way in deconstructing the actor, however. While Liman highlights in the above quote that Barry Seal isn't a good guy, American Made's lighter tone never quite provides full retribution (despite the real person's fate), and by extension avoids having Cruise subtextually admitting he may have gone too far at points.
Still, it's good to see Cruise willing to draw comedic attention to his image. In fact, this appears to be a key drive for the actor's current career phase - Alex Kurtzman made similar claims about The Mummy, although there it was noticeably less successful.