In 'American Made' Tom Cruise flies high but not very deep

Spoiler-free review: Tom Cruise is back in the pilot seat (for real), sporting both charm and a bare arse (for real) in this true drug-smuggling story.

Jennifer Bisset Former Senior Editor / Culture
Jennifer Bisset was a senior editor for CNET. She covered film and TV news and reviews. The movie that inspired her to want a career in film is Lost in Translation. She won Best New Journalist in 2019 at the Australian IT Journalism Awards.
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  • Best New Journalist 2019 Australian IT Journalism Awards
Jennifer Bisset
3 min read

So let's talk about Tom Cruise.

The Cruiser has been a movie star for more than three decades. By now he's either a draw card or a turn-off for moviegoers, depending how you feel about Scientology and big grins.

After audiences didn't go for "The Mummy" earlier this summer, Cruise is back in "American Made." And as in the entertaining sci-fi romp "Edge of Tomorrow," also directed by Doug Liman, he aims to charm the pants off you. Not only is he back in the pilot seat -- shades of "Top Gun" -- but his pants literally come off to give us a glimpse of Cruise's 55-year-old butt. Twice, no less.

Cruise plays real-life American airline pilot Barry Seal, who purses his Tom Cruise lips, cocks his head with that Tom Cruise grin and agrees to smuggle drugs for Pablo Escobar.

If that attitude sounds improbably carefree, that's because this is a very loose take on a true story from the 1980s. Seal smuggles Cuban cigars as a sideline gig but finds himself recruited by the CIA as a perceived communist threat emerges in Central America. A suited-up Domhnall Gleeson ("Star Wars: The Force Awakens") plays undercover operative Monty Schafer, who's willing to turn a blind eye to Seal's cigar-packed suitcases as long as Seal agrees to take aerial photographs of insurgent training camps.

Bored by working for Trans World Airlines, Seal jumps on the reconnaissance work. Cue the hail of bullets spraying Seal's small plane as Cruise -- who actually piloted the plane for filming, because of course he did -- keeps the film flying at a relentless pace. One montage later, Seal's considering an offer of a lot of money from some bad hombres. They're members of the Medellin Cartel, a Colombian drug organization involving Escobar that smuggled tons of cocaine all over the world throughout the 1970s and 1980s. You may already know them from "Narcos," "The Infiltrator" and the other films and TV series going loco for Escobar lately.


Domhnall Gleeson and Tom Cruise.

Universal Pictures

Handheld documentary-like camerawork and Casey Neistat-style scrapbook editing carry Seal from country to country, from exploit to criminal exploit. Cruise breaks the fourth wall with playful explanations of what he's up to, similar to the true-stories-made-fun storytelling of "The Big Short." There are plenty of laughs in the film's rapid-fire editing. In one scene, Seal tells his wife to don all her jewelry when the feds come for him -- and a minute later she's striding down their center staircase in a fur coat, glittering with diamonds from neck to arm.

Seal's relationship with his stalwart wife, Lucy, brought to life with humor by Sarah Wright, is what grounds the film. While Barry and Lucy enjoy substantial screen-time, Seal's relationship with his kids doesn't see much light, weakening the family subplot. But without those scenes, Seal's antihero would be less palatable as he breezes though his adventure with naivety underpinning his greed. He's redeemed by his commitment to supporting his family.

Universal Pictures

Despite the high stakes of Seal's exploits through Central America and his dealings with American feds, any substance is brushed away at the pool table where Seal splashes his literal bags of money. He's able to swing through each predicament with little consequence and there's no gut-wrenching moment to plunge you deeper into the film. It's an odd choice when you consider what ultimately happened to Seal in real life.

"American Made" plays Seal's story as a stranger-than-fiction romp. It pulls back from hammering in the greed founding Seal's actions and the Iran-Contra political scandal. The film whooshes you from start to finish, leaving little time for contemplation -- but lots for enjoying Cruise charm. And his butt.

"American Made" lands in the UK and Australia on Aug. 25, and is in theaters from Sept. 29 in the US.

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