“All this is legal?” Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) asks a CIA operative (Domhnall Gleeson) in “American Made.”
Barry, a pilot who graduated at the top of his class, has been recruited to fly over Latin American, taking covert surveillance photos of Communist compounds and earning more cash than can fit in the Louisiana home he shares with his wife (Sarah Wright) and children.
“If you’re doin’ it for the good guys,” the agent shrugs.
Ah yes, the good ol’ “good guys,” that nebulous concept so frequently invoked in matters of grit. C’mon, bro, just lend a hand to the American government’s foreign reconnaissance; you’ll be rewarded with a sweet new plane, a phony business front and sacks of money. It’s patriotism! (Plus, Barry needs the income to support his family.)
Of course, this is a Tom Cruise movie, which means the action doesn’t end with a daring aerial mission and a pair of aviator sunglasses. Zippy zigs and zonked zags abound in “American Made,” a Hollywood spin on a true story. It opens with Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “A Crisis of Confidence” speech and ends with Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal, casting an appropriately cynical light on the presidency as filtered through one guy’s unlikely entanglements.
Along the way, Barry meets a Colombian businessman launching a minor operation that could use his help, seeing as he’s in the area so often. Said businessman turns out to be Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía) spearheading what would become the vast Medellín Cartel. C’mon, bro, just drop kilos of cocaine over the New Orleans swamps; you’ll be rewarded with, yes, more sacks of money. And then the CIA has him transporting guns to Nicaragua, except the guns end up in the hands of the cartel, and the drugs end up in the hands of the Nicaraguans ― with a few more overstuffed turns in between. Before we know it, this de facto network has sent arms and narcotics soaring across the globe.
There’s a lot of intrigue to cover in “American Made,” written by Gary Spinelli (“Stash House”) and directed by action fiend Doug Liman (“Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” “The Bourne Identity” and the far superior “Go”). Why, then, does the movie sputter? Its goal is 115 minutes of full-throttle adventure; its reality is 115 minutes of inertia enhanced by Cruise’s signature grin. “Made” chugs through intentionally convoluted proceedings, not thinking to make Barry, or anyone in his midst, all that interesting. Cruise has to carry the weight without an astute script to support him. It’s risky business, even if the stunt-obsessed actor does give Barry a what-the-hell-is-going-on restlessness that has an obvious appeal.
“American Made” thrives it its ideas more than its execution. Barry accepts the CIA’s offer because, in theory, it means he can bolster his finances and escape the tedium of a quotidian flyboy. But he’s stretched thinner and thinner by his employers’ competing interests. His arrogant, capitalistic drive turns into law-skirting madcap, as evidenced when Barry lands in front of two young kids, coated in coke and desperate for a getaway. The film connects the plot’s dots with caffeinated pep, but getting from one to the next reveals an exercise in streamlining events so methodically that they become a lethargic jumble. The nuanced premise, about serving a government embroiled in shady shenanigans, becomes a tiresome “Blow” imitation.
Finally, a confession: I’m a Tom Cruise stoic. It’s fun to see him dangle from cliffs or shimmy around sans britches, but I can’t claim a spot among his many disciples, who will certainly find more magic in his not-quite-gonzo-but-close performance. Here, he drifts somewhere between charming and dickish, never quite finding a landing spot. Your mileage may vary, “Top Gun” mavericks, but I’d rather cruise along to another movie.
“American Made” opens in theaters on Sept. 29.