American Made (2017)

115 min. Director: Doug Liman. Cast: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright.

The tagline on the posters for Doug Liman’s American Made cheekily promise it’s “Based on A True Lie,” although the film itself includes the opening title “Based on a true story.” Neither descriptor is entirely accurate; rather, the film makes a legend out of Barry Seal, a criminally corrupt pilot who—in order to save his skin—went to work for the Reagan-era government.

Just in time after the debacle of The Mummy, Tom Cruise delivers a winningly old-school star performance as Seal, a TWA pilot who supplements his income smuggling contraband. As the film has it, Seal gets recruited by the CIA, in the form of a handler going by “Schafer” (Domhnall Gleeson). “We’re building nations!” Schafer enthuses. “We could use someone like you.” Seal’s subsequent work as a reconnaissance pilot over Central America (and courier to and from Manuel Noriega) puts him on the radar of the incipient Medellín cartel, so Seal starts running drugs on the side for Pablo Escobar and company.

Gary Spinelli’s script gives Liman the stuff for a propulsive narrative, goosed along by a snappy pace and kicky editing. The filmmakers streamline Seal’s story considerably, and given his shadowy role in history, it’s a story that invites conjecture. Depending on whom you believe, this version of Barry Seal either dumbs down a longtime CIA operator to a skilled hustler or elevates a DEA informant to a CIA operative. Either way, Seal’s story is a fascinating one worth investigating, and Made will draw mass attention to it. Spinelli’s Seal is apolitical, a thrill-seeker primarily motivated by the almighty dollar. As played by Cruise, he’s like Maverick gone to seed, a hotshot pilot with a hot wife (Sarah Wright Olsen) who winds up with more cash than they know what to do with.

Cyclically, Seal gets into trouble, gets bailed out by Schafer, then allows Schafer to get him into yet deeper trouble, like running guns to the Contras or being sent back into the belly of the Medellín cartel beast to obtain photographic evidence of political use to U.S. Marine Lt. Colonel Oliver North and, in turn, Ronald Reagan, before the Iran-Contra scandal hit the fan. Meanwhile, the cinematic Seal would fit right in on Breaking Bad or Ozark, as cash overflows from his properties and the local banks in Mena, Arkansas.

The slick surface of American Made largely plays like another variation on the rags-to-riches-to-crash-and-burn trajectory of movies like Scarface and Goodfellas, with a healthy helping of flexible history, a la American Hustle. As such, American Made works a treat. Liman, who previously teamed with Cruise on Edge of Tomorrow, evokes the 1980s without fetishizing them, and his star proves again that he’s both a master reactor (much of the comedy plays off of Cruise’s facial expressions in absurd situations) and a master proactor, charging into trouble with a grimace or, more often, a wide-as-a-mile grin. He’s just the guy to play “the gringo who always delivers.”