Tom Cruise's Cold Streak Continues With "American Made"

Any meaningful big screen thrills to be derived from the true story of TWA pilot turned drug runner Barry Seal were snuffed out the moment Tom Cruise was cast to play him. Cruise’s 21-year-old “Mission: Impossible” series remains one of our great action franchises, reliably quickening pulses even at its silliest. But the 55-year-old star standing in for a portly, devil-may-care Louisianan is an epic miscast, the likes of which calls to mind Kevin Costner’s historically misbegotten 1991 turn as Robin Hood. Mercifully, the ‘70s and ‘80s-set “American Made” comes without a Bryan Adams-sung theme song, but Doug Liman’s film cannot overcome the strangeness of Cruise attempting to reclaim “Top Gun” glory as a twentieth century good old boy.

When an enigmatic CIA agent named Monty Schafer (an equally miscast Domhnall Gleeson; the role calls for a Jack Black type) approaches commercial airline pilot Barry Seal, the former offers the latter both an escape from his humdrum life and a significant bump in income. Seal accepts, thrilled to assume the mantle of unofficial CIA intelligencer – and to better provide for his family. Tasked with flying reconnaissance missions over Central America, Seal eventually graduates to serving as a messenger between the CIA and Panama’s General Noriega.

But that’s only half of the story.

At heart, Seal is a morally ambiguous braggadocio, willing to do anything for his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright), his children, and, above all, his taste for adrenaline. On one of his trips to Central America, he becomes involved with the Colombian Medellín Cartel. Before long he’s smuggling cocaine back to the United States for the likes of Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía), working simultaneously for the U.S. federal government and a band of murderous drug lords.

With the DEA on Seal’s tail, the CIA relocates the Seals to small-town Mena, Arkansas, where the family’s patriarch essentially makes the town his own. On the back of a private airfield generously gifted by the CIA, the local banks become beholden to Barry Seal. He’s made it – lavish house, lapdog subordinates, fleet of planes. But this level of success proves difficult to maintain as the DEA and FBI become increasingly interested and Lucy’s garrulous brother JB (Caleb Landry Jones) throws a handful of wrenches into the works.

All of this is far more thrilling on paper than in practice, with Liman and screenwriter Gary Spinelli extracting little more than striking scenery and a handful of intriguing asides from the material. Like its star-crossed protagonist, the picture has swagger but no aim, cooked up in the form of a stylistic mélange of Scorsese and Tarantino but without the wit or handle on tone. Meanwhile, the narrative bops along arrhythmically like a defective drum machine.

Almost as unfortunate as Cruise’s performance – his southern accent as fleeting as his character’s moral compass – is how actors Jesse Plemons (“Black Mass”) and Lola Kirke (“Mistress America”) go to waste as Mena locals. Plemons’ brief appearance as a Sheriff suggests significant screenplay or editing issues and Kirke’s screen time is of the blink-or-miss-it variety. As one of Hollywood’s brightest rising stars, it’s a shame to see her relegated to a third-tier character that serves as an ineffectual foil for Lucy Seal.

Beyond its whiffed casting, “American Made” is defined by an aesthetic that unfavorably calls to mind much better crime films. Also not an asset: an inevitably dark ending that serves as an inauspicious counterweight to the light bluster that preceded it. Liman and Cruise’s previous collaboration, “Edge Of Tomorrow” was imperfect but got by on imagination. There’s no imagination evident in “American Made” – only an inveterate movie star giving a hasty breath of warm air to a recent cold streak.

The movie’s biggest takeaway? That “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” can’t arrive soon enough.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: September 29, 2017
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Doug Liman
Screenwriter: Gary Spinelli
Starring: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, E. Roger Mitchell, Jesse Plemons, Lola Kirke, Alejandro Edda, Benito Martinez, Mauricio Mejía, Caleb Landry Jones, Jayma Mays
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity)