‘American Made’ Review: Tom Cruise Flies Between Comedy and Tension, Missing Both

Director Doug Liman flirts with scuzziness and political satire but shies away from the darkness

Tom Cruise trashes his flashing-teeth hero image to play, if not a bad guy, then certainly a naughty one in the jaunty drug-running caper “American Made.”

Re-teaming with his “Edge of Tomorrow” (a.k.a. “Live Die Repeat”) director Doug Liman, Cruise plays Barry Seal, a real-life character who ran drugs, guns and money between Central America and Arkansas in the late 1970s and early ’80s, while also working for the CIA.

Seal, a family man who started out as a pilot for TWA, eventually became embroiled in what blew up into the Iran-Contra scandal, as well as being a trusted delivery boy for the Medellin cocaine cartel lead by Pablo Escobar. He also earned himself millions of dollars in cash for his troubles.

Cruise slips into the role with a mischievous grin, although he’s not exactly playing totally against type the way he did in, say, “Magnolia.” The idea is that his Barry is a slippery customer and a great pilot, more son-of-a-gun than Top Gun. With the first of several nods to “Goodfellas,” Cruise narrates the movie himself, although his to-camera testimonies are designed, we learn later, to incriminate his various employers.

Barry initially stumbles into the part but like a good American opportunist, he learns to game the system, using his CIA-sanctioned cover to become “the gringo who delivers” for Escobar and his henchmen. He comes home with suitcases stuffed so full of cash the green stuff practically falls out of the bedroom closets.

As director, Liman (whose father investigated the Iran-Contra affair) has covered the shaky moral ground of Langley in his “Bourne” franchise, and he’s at it again here, while also trying to cram in — and explain away — some real political history. The film features three U.S. presidents: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and, as Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, as well as figures such as Oliver North and General Noriega. Even Nancy Reagan pops up to tell us again: Just Say No.

Liman is to be commended on not stooping to a mere ’80s nostalgia fest, at least not too ironically (he offers a Rubik’s Cube and couple of power ballads but, hey, everyone needs context), using the Cold War politics of the time rather than any awkward fashions or pop. I wonder, though, if he was tempted to show someone watching an early Brat Pack movie on VHS?

The problem is that Cruise, even when trying to cut loose, is always so tightly controlled that we never truly feel the reptilian survivalism of Barry Seal, nor does it feel like anyone on screen is actually enjoying themselves despite the repeated tequila parties and mountains of cash.

Earlyish in the picture, when Barry finds himself in a Colombian jail following a police raid, there’s a bit of business around him having a tooth knocked out, a clear indication that Cruise knows he’s denting his trademark choppers here. Interestingly, the movie never suggests Seal (or any of his pilot cohorts) got high on their own supply; he may want to play with his image, but don’t think for a minute you’ll catch Tom Cruise snorting coke.

Liman’s tone, channelled through Cruise gently straining to deconstruct his own iconography, achieves neither real comedy nor actual tension. The movie feels lightweight, even while pointing fingers at the American government’s meddling foreign policy and lies. The sense of the era’s political absurdity goes missing. Maybe politics, no matter how ridiculous or how distant, just isn’t a laughing matter any more.

Strangely, for a Cruise vehicle, “American Made” takes a while to get going, and, having never quite started, it doesn’t really know when to finish. There’s a terrific climax involving the CIA, DEA, FBI and a bunch of other acronymical forces — except it isn’t the climax, and the movie drags on for quite a while after, forgetting that we really don’t care much for the underwritten storyline of Barry’s family and his wife Lucy, gamely played by Sarah Wright (“Marry Me”) in that increasingly thankless position of “girl in Tom Cruise movie.”

“American Made” isn’t exactly an American Dud, but it is too self-conscious to be as fun as it wants to be. It’s professional, slick and not terrible, as you’d expect from, well, slick professionals such as Liman and Cruise. It looks vibrant and verdant (shot by Uruguayan DP Cesar Chalone, who did “City of God”), but for the gringo movie star who always delivers, it comes up a little short.