Arts & Entertainment, Features

REVIEW: Tom Cruise returns to form in ‘American Made’


When a film claims that it is “based on a true story,” it’s rare that it will particularly test the average viewer’s suspension of disbelief.

But when the true story of a film is based is the misadventures of Barry Seal, a commercial pilot turned drug smuggler, it really comes to show that reality can be stranger than fiction. Such is the case of “American Made,” directed by Doug Liman of “The Bourne Identity” and starring Tom Cruise as Seal.

In “American Made,” Barry Seal is initially portrayed as wanting something more out of his life. A pilot for Trans World Airlines in the early ‘80s, Seal finds cheap thrills in “importing” cigars from Cuba until the CIA get wind of his illicit activities.

A CIA agent referred to only as “Schafer” (Domhnall Gleeson) cuts Seal a deal — under the guise of a fake pilot company (conveniently named IAC, an anagram for the CIA), Seal takes pictures of insurgents all over Central and South America and hands the photos back to the CIA, being handsomely paid in the process.

After an impromptu run-in with Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía), Seal finds himself smuggling drugs from Colombia into the United States.

It’s a job of a lifetime in more ways than one, and it throws Seal into an adventurous life filled with Contras, money laundering, gun-running, and all the perks that come with being “the Gringo that delivers” for some of the most notorious figures of the ‘80s.

At a glance, “American Made” has two major selling points, the first of which is its absurd plot. The almost-word-for-word retelling of the real-life Barry Seal, give or take a few details, soundly lands it among the likes of “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” as another story about an American that made it rich through borderline, if not absolutely illegal means.

The film’s use of historical footage, occasional stops to explain the context of the era, and literal use of the passage of time as a way to mark the stages in Barry’s life make the story all more believable and historically accurate, thus keeping the film fresh and interesting.

On top of that, Liman definitely knows how to pace his story. Comedic moments — which include Barry explaining the Contra crisis or introducing his pilot employees — are interspersed between tense takeoffs, stressful landings, and the occasional run-in with the DEA.

At no point does “American Made” ever feel dull or hit any sort of emotional plateau – it has a plot that renovates itself over and over, keeping viewers glued.

The second major selling point, of course, would be Cruise himself.

Free from the shackles of a failed reboot of “The Mummy” or yet another “Mission: Impossible” iteration, Cruise finds himself once more in the cockpit of his “Top Gun” days as a Ray-Ban-wearing, high-flying maverick — and if his performance is in any way indicative of it, Cruise seems to have had fun going back.

The Hollywood-ified Seal is a larger-than-life figure, a man whose thrill-seeking nature and inability to say no to anything that pays well and pumps adrenaline put him in situations none but he would be able to get out of.

It’s exactly the kind of role Cruise was born to do. Pair Seal’s devil-may-care attitude with Cruise’s devilish smile and quick-fire attitude, and you get a protagonist that’s an absolute blast to watch.

The rest of the cast definitely seems to have the same kind of Cruise-y confidence: Gleeson’s “Schafer” is a great foil – and occasional antagonist – to Cruise’s Barry. Sarah Wright shines as Seal’s wife Lucy, whose attitudes towards Barry and his lifestyle change several times over the course of the plot.

And Mejía’s Escobar may be different from what viewers of “Narcos” might be used to from Wagner Moura, but is another great counterpoint for Barry and an absolute delight to watch the closer the film comes to its conclusion.

In short, “American Made” is one of those few “based on a true story” films where at the end, you leave the theater almost not wanting to fact-check it — even though it barely differs from its real-life counterparts.

It’s the kind of thrill ride Cruise’s Barry Seal would have been proud to have been a part of, and a definite must-watch for this already impressive slate of fall movies.

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