As fun and as sharp as American Made can be, it’s also a bit depressing since you can’t help but feel like this was the opportunity for star Tom Cruise to return to the more nuanced performances he hasn’t shown us in over a decade. Cruise is a good actor, but it seemed like he made a decision in the late 2000s to only play likable characters, thus leaving behind more interesting roles like the ones he played in Magnolia, War of the Worlds, and Eyes Wide Shut. This renders Doug Liman’s movie a bit of an oddity as Cruise grins and stunts his way through a film about a careless individual who only wants to feed his own ego and adrenaline. A more introspective performance could have made this one of the defining performances of Cruise’s career, but he seems fairly oblivious to the subtext of his character, so Liman tries to use this to his advantage, turning the story of smuggler Barry Seal into one of American excess and carelessness on the global stage.
Before he begins a life of espionage and crime, we don’t really learn much about TWA pilot Barry Seal (Cruise) other than his need for an exciting life, which is exactly what CIA agent “Schafer” (Domhnall Gleeson) offers when he gives Barry a plane and tells him to get shots of communist fighters in South America. Barry is only too happy to oblige, but finds that working for the CIA doesn’t pay too well. Fortunately for Barry, the growing Medellin cartel pays incredibly well, and they recruit the pilot to smuggle cocaine back to the U.S. From there, Barry becomes everyone’s smuggler, “the gringo who always delivers”, taking guns to the Contras in Nicaruaga, and taking drugs back into the U.S. Barry starts raking in the cash and stashing money all over the small town of Mena, Arkansas, but it only becomes a matter of time before all of his allies become enemies.