Everyone knows Tom Cruise is a good actor (although there are plenty who would disagree) - that’s why he’s been making movies for so long. He has a million dollar smile and loads of charm which can reel in some of the toughest critics. He is a three-time Academy Award nominee and thus has proven he can handle serious fare. Sadly, Cruise has been so busy building up his action resume he hasn’t made a film of substance since 2008’s Valkyrie. Maybe Cruise noticed that since his latest, American Made, seems to fit some Oscar criteria. It’s a biopic; its subject matter (criminal acts upheld and even encouraged by the U.S. Government) is enticing and timely; and its main character is so charming viewers can overlook his criminal activity and side with him. We’re talking about Barry Seal (Cruise), the former airline pilot turned double-agent for the CIA and the Medellin cartel, and his story is as crazy as it gets. As far as the film is concerned, director Doug Liman’s latest may be a little too humorous for serious Oscar contention, but that’s good news for audiences who are looking to be entertained.

What makes this such an entertaining project is mostly due to Cruise, who plays Barry as a wide-eyed enthusiast with an appetite for risk and danger. Early on, as an airline pilot for TWA, audiences witness Seal whetting his appetite for adventure by taking a commercial plane off autopilot and performing some ill-advised maneuvers. It’s an obvious sign Barry wants to do more with his life, despite the stability his job offers he and his family (which includes his wife Lucy, played by Sarah Wright).

Oddly enough, CIA Agent Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) has been eyeing Barry, and he offers the pilot an opportunity to “serve his country.” Monty wants Barry to fly reconnaissance missions all over Central America, gathering intel with cameras installed on small government-funded planes. Monty also asks Barry to be courier for General Noriega, and in turn is paid well. With another child on the way, though, Barry craves more. His life takes a major turn when he agrees to fly cocaine into America for the Medellin cartel. In dealing with them, Barry becomes roommates with danger, but he’s making too much money to care.

With American Made, Liman and writer Gary Spinelli borrowed from Martine Scorsese and his over-the-top biopic The Wolf of Wall Street. They took a serious matter and injected plenty of humor, which makes this an easier pill to swallow. When you see taxpayer money used for government-approved criminal activity, it should anger you. But if you lighten the mood by throwing in some jokes, and get an A-list actor to sell it, then everything works. So what if Barry was almost singlehandedly defeating President Reagan’s war on drugs? Who cares he was smuggling Contras into Arkansas so the U.S. military could train them? Let’s also forget the fact Barry smuggled guns meant for the Contras to the cartel (and the Sandinistas) instead. All that is washed away with a confident smile from Cruise.

The biggest drawback to the humor is it lessens the stakes. Barry and his family are in constant danger because he played both sides, and when the candle burns out from both ends their fortunes will turn into problems. But Barry was a product of 80’s culture – success and excess come first. Nothing else matters. That idea runs parallel to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, but Jordan’s risks were never as life-threatening. That is the genius of Liman’s direction – we never once worry about the consequences. We bask in Barry’s glory and envy his riches. On top of it, he’s having the time of his life and audiences want to be Barry.

With the fall yielding mostly serious films with Oscar aspirations, American Made is perfect in its offering of both drama and humor. Despite some off-camera controversy, Cruise, Liman, the cast and crew look like they had fun during production. From Liman’s perspective, this is his lightest (and possibly most accessible) fare since Mr. and Mrs. Smith, whereas Cruise got a rare chance to show off his acting chops. Through all that, audiences get an entertaining 115-minute feature that gives an interesting history lesson. You can’t go wrong with that.

4 stars out of 5


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