“American Made” is the story of a street-smart everyman who does some shady dealings and finds himself rich beyond his wildest dreams, but at the cost of his soul. He engages in fleeting fun and excitement that he finds increasingly unfulfilling. He can’t enjoy the life he’s built for himself because he’s always on the verge of being brought down by good guys and bad guys alike. His family, who served as the reason for him to strive for that life in the first place, hates him. He wants nothing more than to put an end to his racket, but he’s in so deep that it’s impossible for him to do so without losing his freedom or his life.
Tom Cruise stars as Barry Seal, a bored airline pilot in late 1970’s Louisiana. He loves his wife (Sarah Wright) and children very much, but he’s not happy in his career. The only things that give him excitement in his job are turbulence he causes himself and occasionally smuggling cigars. He’s recruited by a CIA agent whose name may or may not be Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) to take overhead reconnaissance pictures of hostile groups in Central America. Barry likes the work, but he’s not happy with the money. He soon finds a way to make some extra cash on the side: smuggling cocaine for the Medellin cartel.
Barry gets caught and the CIA agrees to move him and his family, but he has to take on extra responsibilities, namely delivering supplies to Contras in Nicaragua. This is fine with Barry because it turns out the cartel has some business in Nicaragua and they’re still willing to pay him. Barry soon finds himself running a multi-product, multi-agency, multi-national shipping operation that happens to be as dangerous as it is illegal. He rakes in the rewards; his family is happy as long as they don’t ask questions, and there’s a montage where he talks having so much money that he’s running out of places to keep it. But there’s a series of downsides: orders pile up, conflicts arise, family drama involving his brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) causes problems, several law enforcement agencies at once want him arrested, and for obvious reasons he can’t afford to get on the bad side of the Contras or cartel. Things are going to fall apart for Barry, it’s just a matter of how long he can last and how much money he can make before his empire crumbles.
The key to this movie is the highly agreeable performances by the three leads. Gleeson brings a bouncy charm to what should be a no-nonsense, shadow-cloaked character. Wright is loveably spunky in what a lesser movie might have considered a throwaway role. Then there’s Tom Cruise, every bit as capable of carrying a movie as he’s ever been. Everything he says is funny, or at least convincing if that’s what the scene calls for. Cruise has been in a lot of uninspired action/franchise pictures lately, but here in a one-time historical role, he proves once again that he can handle projects of importance, not that he doesn’t have fun with it.
It’s good that “American Made” can boast some strong performances, because it’s actually quite standard otherwise. We get a serviceable “rags-to-riches-to-ruin” movie about charismatic criminals at least once per year. Recent examples include “War Dogs” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” with the classic examples being gangster movies like “Goodfellas” and “Scarface.” This movie is by no means out of place being mentioned alongside those films, but it does have to follow in their footsteps and doesn’t do a lot to tweak the formula. Defenders will point to this film’s shrewd humor, sharp editing, and sun-baked cinematography. All of these are indeed assets, but they’re featured in the other films too. This genre is filled with so many praiseworthy films that an entry as solid as “American Made” ends up looking relatively mediocre.