There’s a case to be made that Tom Cruise is a compelling screen presence when he looks desperate. Much evidence for this claim was gathered in his millennial run – 1999’s “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Magnolia,” 2001’s “Vanilla Sky” – in which varyingly forceful writer-directors did their level best to chip away at their star’s glib toothpaste-salesman confidence and expose the very human doubts and frailties behind it. After those box-office failures, Cruise retreated to the surety of known properties and franchises; though we got glimpses of other Cruises – notably the Comic Cruise of “Tropic Thunder” – this was his fall-back position up until the disastrous “The Mummy.” It’s possible that audiences had grown tired of watching a performer playing it so consistently safe: as Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson had twigged, it’s always more revealing watching a control freak losing control.
“American Made” isn’t a major breakthrough, but it still feels like a career progression for Cruise simply by handing him an intriguing role: Adler Berriman “Barry” Seal, prime mover in one of those just-declassified, you-couldn’t-make-it-up stories that sporadically fall into the hands of grateful producers.
A morally flexible TWA pilot handpicked by the CIA at the dog-end of the 1970s to assist with their Central American operations, Seal wound up flying for both the Agency and local drug cartels, profiting hugely from his own machinations while holding court with the likes of Pablo Escobar and Oliver North. Buffeting around inside the fuselage rather than clinging clench-jawed to its exterior, Cruise’s Seal is something like his “Top Gun” creation Maverick gone to seed; the welcome surprise of director Doug Liman’s film is that the character’s cockiness comes to be tested rather than hymned.
The first time we see him, he’s literally going nowhere: restlessly holding his position in runway traffic in 1978. (Liman has already set the stagnant scene with President Ford’s gloomy prediction “the next five years will be worse than the past five”; 2017 audiences may wonder what, if anything, has changed.) Seal’s yen for risk-taking is established when he pushes his craft into a nosedive just for the shits-and-giggles of waking up a dozing co-pilot (“just a little turbulence, folks”). Subsequent misadventures will grant him excitement, mobility and more turbulence yet. Impressing CIA operative Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) with his flak-dodging surveillance work, he’s soon trafficking U.S. guns to the Contras; with those passed on, the Medellin cartel invites him to fill his Cessna with cocaine for transportation north – a lucrative offer this gadfly couldn’t refuse, yet came to regret.
Liman – whose work has grown steadily more engaged since his blithe breakthrough “Swingers,” initiating the “Bourne” series and the recent Iraq-set genre quickie “The Wall” – gives a lightly satirical swing to Seal’s uplift. Breezily sketching in geopolitics with hand-drawn maps (which occasions a sharp joke on the inability of some to tell one Central American destination apart from another), he finds new ways to polish the central irony of Gary Spinelli’s script: that his anti-hero was both product and casualty of Reaganomics, a delivery boy momentarily handed half the world on a platter.
Seal’s conspicuous wealth generation is forever undercut by inserts of later, self-taped depositions, those of someone haunted by the knowledge these might be his only legacy, and his last chance to offer it. What price a man’s life?
That back-and-forth invests “American Made” with rather more credible peril than has been on display in the last few “Mission: Impossible” movies. Drug-running proves a risky business even with the Escobars at one’s back, and Liman gives an appreciable visceral kick to those scenes which find the increasingly frantic Seal taking off from untested runways, making a single-handed coke drop barely a thousand feet above the ground or making an emergency landing to evade Customs officials, the latter a near-miss that feels dramatically trumped up – big Dolby swooshes, a flash of CGI – yet still succeeds in making the stomach lurch.
The hopping around risks inducing discombobulation or jetlag in the viewer, yet it appears a considered editorial tactic, intended to shake up a generally self-assured leading man. Even with both feet on the ground, Cruise isn’t entirely safe. When Gleeson’s Schafer first confronts Seal with evidence of illegal cigar-smuggling, that familiar grin first freezes, then dies on the actor’s face, as though April Grace’s “Magnolia” journalist had just walked into the bar. As Seal rolls and lurches through this plot, Cruise sweats and panics in ways Jack Reacher wouldn’t countenance; in jail, the character even loses a tooth, albeit a discreet back molar. (Nobody’s paying to see Tom Cruise turn into Walter Brennan just yet.)
A little of that insecurity feeds back into the film. As “War Dogs” – last year’s name-director-does-recent-foreign-policy offering – suggested, just because a story in the Times or Post catches our eye, it doesn’t automatically generate characters we want to sit in the dark with for two hours. (Liman concedes as much in spinning Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” just as Seal has evaded three branches of law enforcement simultaneously.) Still, the film has just about enough going on around its anti-hero to sustain the interest and land its punchline, and there are signs Liman (a Cruise veteran since “Edge of Tomorrow”) is solving the enduring problem of making a Cruise film that’s not wholly about its leading man.
While Jesse Plemons and Lola Kirke’s pairing as a shrugging sheriff and his more vigilant wife looks to have been a lamentable cutting-room casualty, others have the time to make more persuasive and valuable contributions: the emergent Sarah Wright Olsen impresses as Seal’s wife Lucy, calling out her man’s wilder maneuvers on the homefront, and Caleb Landry Jones is touching as a tragically weak link in the whole criminal enterprise.
The draw, however, remains Cruise, figuratively walking out on a wing; whether multiplexers rejoin him there will be seen, but after endless formula runouts, it’s encouraging to see him being properly exercised again.
“American Made” opens nationwide on September 29.