For the last few years going to see a Tom Cruise action movie has been an absolute chore. Desperate to keep his star status alive and launch new franchises, Tom Cruise movies have turned into empty vessels for the inflated ego of the world’s leading Scientologist. It’s gotten so bad that even audiences stopped showing up, with The Mummy and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back bombing badly enough to suggest his reign of box office dominance might be over. All of which makes the delightfully subversive American Made an extra special surprise. Cruise has reunited with Doug Limon who directed the last genuinely great movie starring the genre icon, The Edge of Tomorrow (the title remains terrible). Together they’ve created a rather insane action/biography/satire that cynically rips apart American values and Tom Cruise’s persona so well that it’s amazing the movie even exists and the star was self-aware enough to let it happen.
So, good ol’ TC stars as Barry Seal in a loosely fabricated version of that man’s actual life. He was a commercial airline pilot in the early 80s bored of his job and far too talented to be coasting. Salvation arrives in the form of Domhnall Gleeson’s squirrely CIA agent who offers Seal a gig flying a private plane over war-torn Central and South American countries to snap intelligence photos, and despite all the bullets flying and engines blowing up, he proves to be quite good at it. This act draws the attention of the growing drug cartels who hire Seal to smuggle cocaine on the side. The guy proves to be even better at that (he’s a great pilot, a ‘top gun’ if you will), but gets caught. Gleeson bails him out, but only on the condition that he start illegally running guns to the Contra faction to help the US secretly fight a war against communism. Next thing you know the guy has a whole staff of pilots on daring war and drug-related missions and has millions of dollars spilling out of his pockets. Obviously, this adventure can’t end well. Yet, since the guy has done so much shady work for the US government, it’s not like the law can ever properly come down on him. Not a bad place to be.
First and foremost, American Made is a deliriously entertaining sugar rush of a movie the likes of which Cruise hasn’t delivered in years. There are some stunning and visceral action/flight sequences that’ll leave viewers breathless while blasting across IMAX screens. Doug Limon directs it all in a state of constant movement. Camera jitter around characters, edits are relentless, and jokes fly out of every corner. The movie never slows down with even the dialogue scenes feeling like mini-setpieces. The filmmaker fuses satire, drama, reality, fiction, action, and biography until they are barely distinguishable. Facts are fudged and the story is confusing, yet that’s almost appropriate given how insane, strange, and classified this all was. The movie can feel convoluted and virtually every character other than Seal is shortchanged (especially his wife and children). These are flaws, yet they also fit with the style of this first-person narrative about an egotistical nut flying by the seat of his pants without concern for anyone else or thoughts towards consequences. Sure, sometimes it can be a bit much or distracting. It just somehow all kind of works as a whole.
It helps that American Made is hysterical (in both senses of the word) with constant laughs and over stimulation. If there is a dominant genre here, it’s certainly satire. American Made might be set in the past and based on specific events, but it feels like a pointed and poignant condemnation of America. After all, Barry Seal’s adventure is rooted in capitalistic success and militaristic action (you know, America’s greatest past times beyond baseball.) Yet, the greed is so gross and the violence so pointed that it feels ugly despite all the fun. The fact that Tom Cruise is at the centre of it all makes the satire even stronger. After all, Cruise specializes in playing characters who are the best in the world at what they do (be it flying planes or mixing drinks), get the money, love the girl, and kill the bad guys. He does that here, just from a morally corrupt and confusing place. That he does it all with that Cruisian smile and charm makes the whole movie a subversive take on the Tom Cruise persona and its place in Americana.
That’s all pretty clever, especially coming from an actor who often seems so lacking in self-awareness that such things seemed impossible. This movie only exists because Cruise made it happen and it’s wonderful that he used his Hollywood power to make a movie so critical of America as well as the type of American fantasies and men that he typically embodies with a straight face. Could I be over reading into this? Sure. But it doesn’t feel like it. Somehow in 2017 Tom Cruise and Swingers director Doug Limon have made a brilliantly cynical blockbuster that bites that hand that feeds them while still delivering a rush of action entertainment designed for the big screen. Hopefully, audiences show up to celebrate. It’ll be tough after the last few years of embarrassingly unambitious and ego-driven Tom Cruise joints. If anything, American Made is a movie that’ll play best for viewers tired of the typical Tom Cruise BS. Hopefully, they’ll give it a chance. The guy should be encouraged to make more movies like this, not just increasingly disappointing Mission: Impossible and Jack Reacher pictures. Getting this film made is more daring than strapping himself to a plane for a stunt, even if the courage and conviction involved isn’t as immediately obvious.
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