‘You can stop me now, things only get crazier from here’ intones a voiceover from pilot and smuggler Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), at about the midpoint of Doug Liman’s American Made. This sentence alone should let you know exactly what you’re in for with this high-octane biopic, and American Made packs in very few surprises when telling its larger-than-life true story of the man who helped kickstart both Pablo Escobar’s drug empire and the Iran-Contra Affair. It’s generally pretty boilerplate, inspired-by-Goodfellas stuff, but the sheer outlandishness of the story and a more knowing sense of humour than its lesser genre brethren keeps things engaging.
We start in 1978, when Seal was a commercial airline pilot, whose sideline in smuggling Cuban cigars into the US via Canada brought him into the crosshairs of the CIA. Represented by entertainingly slimy and self-satisfied stooge Monty Schaefer (Domhnall Gleeson), the Agency initially recruits Barry to fly a spy plane over Central American military training facilities. He proves so adept at this that it’s not long before the Medellin Cartel takes notice and has Barry flying their cocaine from Colombia to the US, while a CIA promotion bumps him up to a position as a gun-runner for US backed right-wing insurgents.
Every single one of Barry’s bosses is despicable, but Cruise is still winning enough in the role that his mountains of dirty money don’t leave too sour a taste in the mouth. It’s a sharper and funnier performance than most of Cruise’s recent roles (Liman pulled off the same trick in 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow), though it’s hardly a genuine imitation of the real Seal, who looked nothing like Cruise. Gleeson is also a lot of fun, and the biggest laughs most often come from his scenes. In a depressingly inevitable turn of events, the roles for women are few and rather thankless, but Sarah Wright does a good job with what she has as Lucy, Barry’s wife.
Liman and writer Gary Spinelli never waste any time, throwing in a tonne of montages to advance the story. The volume of these sequences keeps the audience often at a remove from events, and don’t help American Made defend itself against accusations of being generic, but they do make sure that the film zips by. It’s a story full of manic, uncontrollable escalation, so you can tell from the start how it all has to end, an ending which the film often seems too anxious to reach.
Liman stages the flight scenes themselves with impressive verve and showmanship. They’re not on a par with the transcendent dogfights of Nolan’s Dunkirk earlier this year, but Cruise’s commitment to doing his own stunts again pays great dividends, adding a layer of authenticity that makes the close calls and emergency landings that much more involving. As Liman and Cruise try out ever more creative aerial set-pieces, it becomes clear why Seal became the only pilot to call on for international shady deliveries.
American Made is always serviceably entertaining, but you can’t help but want more out of it, especially as the last 15 minutes are so much better than everything else. Nervous comedy very gradually gives way to proper, clenching tension without any one noticeable tonal shift, before one of the best and funniest obligatory historical context codas in the genre closes things out on a high. If the whole film could have maintained this focused balance between laughs and the terrifying stakes of Barry’s world, then it would have been one of 2017’s best. Instead, it’s just an easily enjoyable biopic that does a nice job closing out the summer movie season.