American Made is a conventional true story crime caper that stays afloat thanks to Liman's solid direction and Cruise's committed turn as an antihero.
In the late 1970s, Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) has settled into a stable, if mundane, career as a TWA pilot, in spite of his not-so-hidden desire to lead a much more exciting life. Enter one Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), a CIA agent who recruits Barry to fly reconnaissance missions in Central America and collect information (by way of taking photographs) of the emerging communist threat there. Over time Barry goes on to carry out additional operations for Schafer too, like serving as a go-between for a Nicaraguan general and the CIA. Before long, however, his antics attract the attention of three South American businessmen - the founders of the Medellin Cartel, to be exact.
As it turns out, the heads of the cartel recognize Barry's unique talents and recruit him to smuggle cocaine into the U.S., for a very handsome price. Barry's life only gets stranger from there, as his illicit deeds soon attract the attention of the DEA - even as the CIA proves willing to turn a blind eye to Barry's crimes and hire him for even more dangerous jobs, like running guns to the Contras in South America. As Barry continues to expand his operations and play for both sides in this deadly game, it begs the question: just how far will his relentless and borderline-unhinged determination take him?
American Made marks the second collaboration between Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman, after their efforts together on the critically-acclaimed 2014 alien invasion action/thriller, Edge of Tomorrow. Whereas that film is a somewhat unusual combination of high-concept science-fiction and popcorn entertainment, American Made is more of a formulaic exploration of the dark side of the American Dream, as inspired by real-life events. Even so, the Cruise/Liman pairing once again yields solid creative results in their second outing together. American Made is a conventional true story crime caper that stays afloat thanks to Liman's solid direction and Cruise's committed turn as an antihero.
The American Made screenplay by Gary Spinelli (Stash House) is a chip off the same block as such true story-based capers as Pain & Gain, The Wolf of Wall Street and War Dogs (among other films) before it. What sets American Made apart from the rest of the pack is the sheer number of cookie jars that Barry Seal had a hand in and his connections to so many major geopolitical developments during the 1980s (under the Regan administration). While Barry's story might have been able to sustain a documentary (with its many bizarre twists and turns), American Made struggles to give his tale more structure and a three-act narrative arc. As engaging as certain portions of the film are, other segments drag as a result - and while the way the movie refrains from being overly preachy is refreshing, by the end it's not clear what point American Made is even trying to make, beyond the self-evident idea that Seal's real life escapades (which, naturally, are exaggerated here) were stranger than fiction.
Similar to how Edge of Tomorrow subverts Cruise's screen image as a fearless action hero, American Made casts the actor in the role of an unrepentant maverick and daredevil who does what he does for the thrill of it all, as much as anything else. Cruise by and large rises to the challenge too, bringing a nice mix of braggadocio and smug charisma to the role of Barry Seal - even selling the idea that Barry was a loyal and caring family man, when he wasn't flying drugs and guns around the world. While Cruise's onscreen antics don't scale the same creative heights as Leonardo DiCaprio's all-in performance from The Wolf of Wall Street, he's more than suitably fearless and ridiculous (his southern accent included) for American Made's purposes. In addition to all that, he brings the same degree of film stunt savviness (doing some of his own flying even) as he has to his more traditional action movie roles for many years now.
While American Made is first and foremost a showcase for Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson gets to have some fun playing the duplicitous and in-over-his-head CIA agent who's responsible for orchestrating most of Barry's cockamamy schemes. Sarah Wright, as Barry's significant other Lucy, plays her own role well, though for the most part she's a stock wife archetype and the film doesn't attempt to explore what makes her tick (or her willingness to stay in the dark when Barry's clearly up to not good). Character actors like Jesse Plemmons and Jayma Mays show up along the way too, as law officials that the Seal family crosses the wrong way. For the most part, however, the only supporting player who leaves a real lasting impression here is Caleb Landry Jones as JB, Barry's comically under-achieving and dim-witted brother-in-law.
While American Made is a mixed bag from a screenwriting perspective, Liman helps to make up the difference with his sturdier directing hand. The filmmaker employs a variety of stylistic flourishes (cartoon graphics, quirky scene transitions) to keep the proceedings engaging here, aided by the stylishly free-flying handheld camerawork from cinematographer César Charlone (City of God). American Made aims to reflect the offbeat methods of its protagonist in this respect and for the large part that approach works. The weaker elements of the movie thus wind up being those that are lifted straight out of the true story crime caper playbook. In particular, the way that American Made uses scenes of Barry recording video confessions about his misdeeds (in the movie's present-day) as a framing device robs his story of some of its unpredictability.
All things considered, American Made makes for a nice change of pace from Cruise's action/thriller offerings of late. At the same time, the film is far from a mold-breaker when it comes to its genre and hits many of the expected marks for this type of caper - in the "post-Goodfellas" age of movies about real-life American antiheroes, so to speak. That said, those who enjoyed how Liman sent-up Cruise's onscreen persona in Edge of Tomorrow may also find American Made to be their cup of tea, for similar reasons. Cruise probably won't gain much traction in the impending awards season for his performance, but Barry Seal certainly makes for a noteworthy addition to the actor's larger collection of movie character roles.