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‘American Made’ review: Tom Cruise action film mostly works

Tom Cruise is a real-life pilot-turned-drug runner in

Tom Cruise is a real-life pilot-turned-drug runner in "American Made." Credit: Universal Pictures / David James

PLOT In the 1980s, a TWA pilot becomes a drug-runner for the Medellin cartel.

CAST Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright, Domhnall Gleeson

RATED R (language and violence)


BOTTOM LINE Fun and freewheeling, but with a large dose of political cynicism as well.

Doug Liman’s “American Made” is based on the real-life figure of Barry Seal, a TWA pilot who during the 1980s smuggled cocaine for the Medellin Cartel and found himself swept up in the Iran-Contra scandal. Starring Tom Cruise as the freewheeling, fast-living Seal, “American Made” presents itself as a roller-coaster ride through a coke-fueled decade, and for the most part it works. The movie jumps the tracks, however, by over-mythologizing its anti-hero and turning him into the poster boy for Reagan-era hypocrisy and hubris.

The story begins, tantalizingly, with a clever young CIA agent, Monty Schafer (an excellent Domhnall Gleeson), who offers to overlook Seal’s occasional smuggled Cuban cigar if he’ll agree to fly reconnaissance missions over Latin American trouble spots. Seal barely stops to wonder why him; he’s so bored with his autopilot job that he jumps at the chance. “And that,” he tells us in a brassy Louisiana accent, “was the day I joined the CIA.”

What follows is a labyrinthine tale of side gigs, double-crosses, vast riches and government cover-ups. Seal’s missions soon expand to running guns, then importing actual Contras to train on U.S. soil. Seal also unwisely begins smuggling cocaine. Eventually, the massive influx of cash into Seal’s home base — a little town called Mena, Arkansas — draws the attention of nearly every three-letter federal agency in existence.

Cruise doesn’t seem fully suited to the role of lovable reprobate, but he knows how to capture an adrenaline rush and his charisma is, as ever, undimmed. Liman directs with plenty of pizzazz, though some thoughtful moments would have been nice as well.

The main problem with “American Made” is that its story doesn’t support its theme. There’s little if any evidence that Seal worked for the CIA; Schafer appears to be a complete fiction; and much of Seal’s story, from his secret meeting with Iran-Contra architect Oliver North to his casual run-in with what looks like a young George W. Bush, is simply hard to swallow. “American Made” wants to cast Seal as capitalist caricature and political pawn all at once, but that’s a lot to hang on this particular pilot’s wings.


“American Made” marks a reunion for star Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman, who previously made the 2014 adventure “Edge of Tomorrow.” Here are four other films Liman directed — without Cruise.

SWINGERS (1996) Liman attracted attention with this indie about a guy (Jon Favreau) who hasn’t gotten over being dumped by his girlfriend, so his friends try to get him back into the swinging singles scene. Favreau also wrote the screenplay, which was based on his own experiences.

THE BOURNE IDENTITY (2002) Matt Damon starred as writer Robert Ludlum’s title character who can’t remember anything about his past. The movie was Liman’s first box-office blockbuster, which led to four follow-ups, none of which he directed.

MR. AND MRS. SMITH (2005) Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie met and fell in love on the set of this Liman-helmed action pic about a husband and wife who are both paid assassins and don’t know that they’ve each been assigned to kill the other. Not to be confused with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 screwball comedy of the same name that starred Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard.

FAIR GAME (2010) Naomi Watts played real-life CIA operative Valerie Plame, whose identity was allegedly leaked by the government after her husband (Sean Penn) wrote an Op-Ed piece attacking George W. Bush’s administration.

— Daniel Bubbeo

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