A growing body of evidence supports the hypothesis that Tom Cruise films are better when their protagonist is flying a plane (“Top Gun” or his new flick “American Made”) than when their star is hanging off the side of a plane (“The Mummy” or “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”).
In “American Made,” Cruise’s Barry Seal is a typical TWA pilot in the late 1970s, slamming scotch on the rocks at hotel bars and smuggling a few Cuban cigars across borders. Late one blue evening, he is approached by CIA agent Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson). The gingery spook offers Barry the chance to work for his own flying organization, under a scrambled-initial front called IAC (Independent Aviation Consultants).
When his character accepts Schafer’s offer, does Cruise don aviators, take the new plane up and fly low enough to buzz his handler? Of course he does — he must have had it written into his contract.
While initially engaged to take photographs for the CIA, Barry soon diversifies his portfolio after meeting new partners in Colombia named Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia), two founders of the Medellin Cartel. Barry amusingly develops his conversational Spanish: “Adonde vamos, fellas?” and the one question he asks about running Escobar’s cocaine isn’t moral but metric: “How much is a kilo?” Barry has a continuing interest in never flying an empty plane and comes to run guns for the Contras in Nicaragua as well.
Barry’s wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) is lovely but bewildered as the family moves to the CIA-approved Podunk town of Mena, Arkansas and enters that “too many briefcases stuffed with cash to fit in the house” stage of the relationship.
The supporting cast of “American Made” includes several charming actors — while we see disappointingly little of Jesse Plemons as Mena Sheriff Downing and Lola Kirke as his wife, Caleb Landry Jones is memorable as Barry’s ne’er-do-well brother in law, JB. Like a left-handed relief pitcher in Major League Baseball, Jones will be able to fill the niche of a one-man southern gothic horror show for decades.
The film’s looseness is established by director Doug Liman, who uses sun-soaked and informal camerawork, with many sweaty, oversaturated shots along with zany animations based on Barry’s somewhat hazy notions of Central American geography.
With an alphabet soup after him — DEA, FBI, ATF — and the CIA suddenly not there to protect him, the last act of the film is reminiscent of Scorsese’s “Casino,” all about the walls closing in around our hero.
Still, he continues taking wild risks based only on his swaggering overconfidence that things will work out all right. He has small glimmers of insanity in the corners of his eyes and, as such, the stem-cell smoothie chugging Tom Cruise really is the best man to play the role (though it must be noted that he did not go full-Method and pack on enough pounds to match the real-life rotundity of Mr. Seal).
His life doesn’t make sense but somehow makes perfect sense — Barry Seal is an American. Our nation is called, more than once, “the greatest country in the world,” especially if you follow the credo that we’re here for a good time, not a long time.
“American Made” is showing at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas. Rated R. Running time 1:55. Visit www.cinemawest.com.