These days, Tom Cruise is in a rather odd position as a Hollywood star: people expect him to be solid in his roles, but they don't really expect him to do anything that might be award-worthy, either. He always gives a full-court-push, regardless of the project he's in at the time, be it Rock of Ages, Edge of Tomorrow, or the Mummy movie that we'd all sooner forget ever happened. In the end, he always gives it his all, and that's true again here in American Made.
Directed by spy and caper film regular Doug Liman (Mr & Mrs Smith, Bourne Identity) from a script by freshman writer Gary Spinelli, it follows a highly fictionalized account of the life of TWA pilot turned drug mule Barry Seal. As often as we've seen these good guys turn to the dark side and make a pile of money only to wind up getting in way over their heads, American Made feels rather fresh in its telling.
Cruise's version of Seal isn't really a fully good guy from nearly the start. If money is talking, or something exciting seems to be in the offering, he doesn't have any inner dialogue about whether it's the right thing to do — he just flashes the trademark Tom Cruise smile and goes for it. When CIA handler Monty 'Schafer' (played by Domhnall Gleeson) first pitches the idea of being a aerial photographer over various Central American countries, Seal sniffs him out immediately. He's already long signed on board even before he's shown the sleek new airplane the government is offering him to do his missions.
Before long, he's doing the best reconnaissance flights around. But he's not subtle — some fledgling would-be drug runners capture him and offer him vast sums of cash to start running drugs back North across the border. Once again, he smiles and signs on.
By the time we've reached the segment where he tries to find a place to put all the money (shades of Breaking Bad rather comes to mind), we realize again we've largely seen all of this before. Whenever you get either a government informant story or an everyman-turned-drug runner story, we haven't seen a lot of originality in either of those genres in the past decade or so. Unfortunately, this doesn't break any new ground.
That said, between Spinelli's writing and Liman's quick pacing and solid-if-stylized camera work (the film really does have an '80s vibe to it), it's really more enjoyable than one might have expected. It's not exactly new, but it feels fresh, and Cruise's and Gleeson's performances put it solidly into the recommended viewing range.