Tom Cruise more than makes up for his Mummy misfire earlier this summer with American Made, a rollicking, high-flying, sort-of-true adventure that gives the toothsome star his best part in years. He stars as Barry Seal, a bored TWA pilot who, in 1978, is illegally transporting small quantities of Cuban cigars into the U.S. to earn some extra money. His little contraband business gains the attention of CIA operative Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson, gleefully cunning), who soon recruits Seal to fly surveillance missions over Central America that include intel-for-cash visits with Panamanian military dictator Manuel Noriega. The assignments become increasingly dangerous and his aerial derring-do attracts someone else’s notice: Medellín drug-cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia), who wants Seal to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. for him, and is willing to pay 2000 dollars for every kilo he delivers. With a wife (Sarah Wright Olsen) and growing family to support, Seal reluctantly agrees.
“I tend to look before I leap,” Seal acknowledges at one point. “Maybe I should have asked more questions.” Yeah, he should have, because Seal can’t even imagine the convoluted escapades he will become involved in, which later include secretly delivering AK-47s from the U.S. government to contra rebels in Nicaragua, and bringing back some of those fighters to train in America. At one point, he’s working for the CIA, the DEA, and the Medellín cartel all at once. While Seal, who is swimming in money (so much so that he buries millions in his backyard in rural Mena, AR), is able to play the various sides against one another for a time, his high life comes crashing down when his duplicitous actions become clear and he has no place to hide.
American Made is presented as a freewheeling, comic misadventure—albeit one with some very shady underpinnings—by director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow), who obviously wants viewers to see Seal as a rascally antihero. Yet the real Seal was anything but heroic: He was one of the most notorious drug smugglers in U.S. history. Fortunately for Liman, Cruise is at his boyish best here, flashing his winsome smile to great effect and imbuing Seal with a youthful gusto that is hard to resist. Even when he’s carrying out his dirtiest schemes, we root for him due to Cruise’s devilish charm and engaging swagger. It also helps that the film is very loosely based on Seal’s life and alters or omits key elements, such as two of his three marriages and the extent and impact in the U.S. of his vast drug dealings. Also, Cruise looks nothing like Seal, who was nicknamed “the Fat Man” due to his nearly 300-pound frame.
American Made isn’t a biopic. It’s “a fun lie based on a true story,” as Liman says in the movie’s official press materials. The result is an undeniably entertaining caper filled with zany twists and turns that are all the more fascinating because they are (somewhat) rooted in fact. If you want a more realistic take on Seal’s life, check out Double-Crossed from 1991, which stars Dennis Hopper as Seal. But if you’re just looking for rowdy, escapist entertainment, American Made is made-to-order.