OnScreen Review: 'American Made'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

The 1980s war on drugs serves as the backdrop for Doug Liman’s second film of 2017, American Made. It is also Tom Cruise’s second film of 2017, after the disastrous The Mummy reboot, and the second collaboration between Cruise and Liman after 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow (A.K.A. Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow). American Made also represents one of the few times that Cruise has appeared in a biographical film, and it gives us an acting performance from Cruise that we don’t typically see.

The film is based on the real life story of Barry Seal (Cruise), an airline pilot who gets recruited by the CIA to take recon aerial shots of military installations in Central America in the late 70s. His work is so good that his CIA handler, Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), asks him to start acting as courier between the U.S. government and Manuel Noriega down in Panama. Things quickly escalate to the point where Barry becomes a gun runner for the United States and a drug runner for the cartel, making more money than he knows what to do with, and drawing the attention of other government agencies in the process.

While it’s a biographical drama, there are a lot of comedic elements to the film. There is a looseness to the story, and likely a looseness to the historical accuracy of the events depicted. It’s a looseness that mirrors the central character. Cruise is at his most affable and charming in the role of Barry Seal, someone who is flying by the seat of his pants for as long as the ride will last. At the height of his operation, Barry is given maps by Schafer to help him navigate his plane to avoid various radar detections on his trips. It’s basically a tightrope performance every time he flies. Similarly, working for the drug cartel and the CIA at the same time is a tightrope performance. As an audience, we know it can’t last forever, but it’s impressive to see how long he can manage to keep it up.


Part of the benefit of casting someone like Cruise in a role like this is that he brings a movie star persona to a smaller, “real life” role and play a little bit against type. Tom Cruise is usually the hero, the guy who saves the day (or the world) and wins out at the end. Liman played with this a bit in Edge of Tomorrow, with his character being a bit of a military coward who gets stuck repeating the same terrible day over and over. He subverts the movie star archetype before growing him into it. With American Made, Cruise is in charming anti-hero mode; a likeable rogue living the American dream gone awry.

Cruise is surrounded by a supporting cast that is talented, but not fully utilized. Sarah Wright, a blonde young enough to be Cruise’s daughter, plays Barry’s wife Lucy. There’s definitely a Wooderson thing going on with Cruise’s love interests in his movies now; he gets older, they stay the same age. Gleeson is the government spook who clearly sees Barry as expendable from the get go. Jesse Plemons is a local police sheriff and Lola Kirke pops up as his wife who is more suspicious of the influx of cash into the community when Barry moves into town than her husband is. Their roles are so minor, though, it’s an odd casting choice. Caleb Landry appears as JB, Lucy’s mooch of a younger brother. This is the third film I’ve seen Jones in this year (Get Out and War on Everyone being the others) and it seems like he keeps trying to out-scuzzy his previous role.

American Made is an entertaining film based on real life events in a similar vein of films like Blow. Cruise is charming and energetic as the lead. Liman has created a film that is bubbling with creative energy. The audience I saw it with was sucked in a completely engaged. The storyline is familiar, where the main character is living the high life and the inevitable record scratch moment is coming to derail everything, but the star power of Cruise makes the familiar storyline palatable rather than warmed over.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars