Tom Cruise plays a freewheeling smuggler in ‘American Made’

Cruise’s Barry Seal gets ready for another clandestine trip.
Photo: Universal Pictures / Courtesy

Three stars

American Made Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright. Directed by Doug Liman. Rated R. Opens Friday citywide.

It’s likely that only a fraction of the events depicted in American Made actually happened to pilot Barry Seal in the way the movie portrays them, but what Doug Liman’s breezy film lacks in verisimilitude it makes up for in entertainment value, at least for a while. The real Seal worked for both the U.S. government and the Medellín drug cartel in the 1970s and ’80s, playing both sides by smuggling drugs, intelligence and weapons back and forth across borders to various factions. As played by Tom Cruise at his most charismatic, the movie’s Barry is a reckless but likable bad boy who’s always up for a challenge, and isn’t really concerned about where his money or his job opportunities are coming from.

With its narration from a morally compromised real-life main character and its morbidly comic tone, Made is one of the many descendants of Martin Scorsese’s crime epic Goodfellas, and it falls somewhere around last year’s very similar War Dogs in its effectiveness at balancing glib humor with serious criminal activity. Although Seal actually ended up playing an important role in the drug war of the ’80s and the eventual Iran-Contra scandal, Liman and screenwriter Gary Spinelli are less interested in social commentary than in throwing their protagonist into ever more outlandish situations and then winking at the audience over how crazy it all is.

That’s fun to watch at first, thanks largely to one of Cruise’s most purely enjoyable performances in a while, but it eventually becomes repetitive, especially since Cruise’s charisma is pretty much all the character development that Barry gets. The supporting characters are even less distinctive, with Domhnall Gleeson as a CIA handler so inscrutable he doesn’t even get a real name, and Sarah Wright (playing Barry’s wife Lucy) as the latest much-too-young love interest for Cruise to overshadow onscreen.

Liman mixes vintage archival footage, occasional animation and Barry’s first-person camcorder testimony in with gritty handheld shots and sweeping vistas of Barry’s many plane trips. It’s a sometimes cluttered style that represents the mounting pressure of Barry’s life, as he’s spread thinner and thinner by the demands of his various bosses, while trying to maintain his own burgeoning criminal empire in the backwoods of Arkansas. Given the shady characters for whom he works and the extravagance of his lifestyle, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for Barry as he finds himself in over his head, but his life is an entertaining mess, and Made is an amusing counterpoint to the more serious depictions of the ’80s drug trade in recent TV series Narcos and Snowfall. Just because Barry wasn’t a good guy doesn’t mean he wasn’t good fun.

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