“American Made” solidifies Tom Cruise’s relevancy in contemporary cinema

A promotional picture for "American Made."
A promotional picture for "American Made."

Directed by Doug Liman, “American Made” is based on Trans World Airlines pilot turned egotistical drug smuggler Barry Seal, played by Tom Cruise, in the early 1980s. Seal is approached by CIA case officer Monty Schafer — played by Domhnall Gleeson — and begins taking photos over Central America for the CIA. During a mission, Seal encounters the Medellín Drug Cartel in Colombia and, thrilled by the potential wealth gain, begins his career as a drug smuggler.

Liman — who previously directed 2014’s “Edge of Tomorrow” and 2002’s “The Bourne Identity” — crafts a fast-paced, surprisingly comedic film about drug and arms smuggling and shady CIA operations.

Cruise gives an undeniably compelling performance, tapping into Seal’s dangerous optimism and upbeat attitude. Seal — never dismissing new opportunities to make money — is an anti-hero who establishes an emotional bond with viewers. As a family man, Seal’s primary motivation is making money to benefit his family. Seal retains a happy-go-lucky attitude, which makes him entertaining as a central protagonist. While comedic, Seal’s persona also establishes his vulnerability and occasional stupidity. As he becomes increasingly engrossed in crime, viewers can’t help but want him to succeed.

While the film involves controversial subjects — such as the questionable tactics the CIA uses to target major drug cartels — “American Made” doesn’t spend much time providing context. Viewers see the film entirely through Seal’s point-of-view and, like Seal himself, the movie is in constant motion, rarely pausing to acknowledge the magnitude and danger of Seal’s actions. Seal doesn’t comprehend or appreciate what’s at stake, eagerly using any available opportunity to advance his wealth. His ignorance both heightens the film’s sense of unpredictability and detracts from the film’s drama.

While the film’s energetic pacing reflects Seal’s personality, the film rarely slows to allow viewers to become fully invested. A more contemplative approach would have strengthened the emotional core of the film. As a result, the film’s most tense scenes — such as sequences involving Seal’s wife — don’t have the impact they merit.

The cinematography evokes a fly-on-the-wall quality. The documentary aesthetic grounds the eventual labyrinthine plot in reality, lending it a visceral, sun-drenched atmosphere. The occasionally out-of-focus, twitchy camerawork makes viewers feel in the middle of the action — like they’re watching real people, not actors.

While the exhausting pace doesn’t always work in the film’s favor, “American Made” should satisfy history aficionados and filmgoers looking for a compelling Cruise performance.