After all the goodfellas, war dogs and Wall Street wolves, American Made doesn't have much new to show about good people getting rich doing bad things. Money is still the root of affable evil thanks to Tom Cruise's winning grin, in a true-life immorality tale needing to dig deeper.
Cruise's maverick swagger gets a workout as Barry Seal, an airline pilot recruited in the 1980s by the CIA to fly covert South American missions for the U.S. government. Seal then got hired by the fledgling Medellin cocaine cartel and later the DEA, a Gumpian path through the Reagan decade's greatest misses.
Seal's path crossed with everyone from drug kingpin Pablo Escobar to young George W. Bush outside daddy's VP office, from Oliver North of Iran-Contra infamy to Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. Dangerous stuff that Cruise makes appear easier than it must have been, as mega movie stars so often do.
Sure, Cruise sweats as Seal glides from one jam to the next. But he doesn't show much fear, at least not enough to feel authentic and make viewers squirm. Greed appears to be Seal's only motivation, which is fine except Gary Spinelli's screenplay sets him up as taking these risks while happily married with two children and one on the way.
In reality, Barry and Lucy Seal (Sarah Wright) were divorced six years before this movie's action begins. That's why Cruise's performance contains fleeting regret about placing his family in possible danger. The wife and kids are props generating warmth for a character who probably wasn't as ingratiating as the actor playing him. And that explains why Lucy's scenes including a key subplot with her brother (Caleb Landry Jones) ring false.
Fortunately, director Doug Liman has a better knack for desktop espionage and tense encounters, whether it's Seal flying through artillery fire during a spy mission or hiding his DEA duplicity from Escobar's goons. Too often the action is played for laughs, comic relief coming too soon unless you're going all out for laughs. American Made wants it both ways, with comedy eroding its drama and vice versa.
Just enough episodes thread that entertainment needle: Seal's first takeoff from Escobar's too-short runway elicits nervous giggles, and an arrest becomes a farce of overlapping jurisdictions, ended by a call from Bill Clinton. Seal played all ends against his middle, a tangled tale that Liman eventually uses Schoolhouse Rock-style animation to explain at a point when attention may be slipping.
American Made is first and foremost Cruise's chance to show who's still top gun, down to the aviator trade and sunglasses. Liman's movie is hectic but familiar fun, one with a need for something besides speed and greed.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.