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'American Made' flies high

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Are we running out of movie stars?

One of the unanticipated side effects of the current trend toward blockbuster franchise building is a sense of interchangeability with regards to the actors. That’s not to say there aren’t gifted actors floating around in spandex or grittily shooting bad guys; there certainly are. It just doesn’t matter as much anymore which specific gifted actor it might be. These films are about the property, not the performer.

There used to be a fairly long list of names that could be said to be able to “open” a movie. Actors whose mere presence ensured a strong box office turnout. That list has shrunk considerably and there are very few who look up to the task of adding their names to the roster.

But Tom Cruise – whether you like him or not – is still a movie star. And every quality that contributed to that stardom is on full display in his latest film “American Made.”

Cruise has re-teamed with director Doug Liman – the two previously collaborated on 2014’s excellent “Edge of Tomorrow” – for this film, based on the true story of a pilot who finds himself ensnared in a handful of the biggest happenings in the political world of the late 1970s and early 1980s. It’s a wild and wooly period piece whose central narrative seems almost too weird to be true – but it is.

Well, based on true anyway.

Cruise plays Barry Seal, a commercial pilot flying for TWA in the late ‘70s. He’s getting by, supplementing his income with a bit of light smuggling in an effort to provide for his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright, TV’s “Marry Me”) and their growing family.

Change drops into Barry’s life in the form of Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson, “mother!”), a CIA operative who wants to recruit Barry to work for the agency. See, there’s some questionable communist activity going on in Central America and the U.S. government wants to see what’s what. So Schafer outfits Barry with a plane and a camera and puts him to work.

Barry’s so good at the gig that he winds up with additional duties – namely, serving as a middleman between the U.S. and Panamanian military leader Manuel Noriega. Along the way, Barry gets picked up by members of the group that would eventually become the Medellin Cartel – led by Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda, “#REALITYHIGH”) and Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia, TV’s “Narcos”) – and offered the chance to help move their cocaine into the United States.

Barry says yes and is now making money hand over fist. But while the CIA could care less about his illicit activities, the DEA is VERY concerned, leading Barry to flee with his family to small-town Arkansas.

This is where the CIA decides that they’d like to start running guns to the Contras, though Barry winds up delivering plenty to his Colombian friends. Then, the government decides to start a Contra training ground there in Arkansas, leaving Barry with the task of transporting them there.

The program gets shut down and Barry is abandoned to a likely lifetime in prison. However, Barry makes a deal with the White House – specifically the DEA and Colonel Oliver North (Robert Farrior, “Girl Flu”) – to get photographic proof of the Medellin Cartel’s connection to corrupt government officials. He does, but word gets out and he becomes the target of Escobar’s assassins who, eventually, track him down.

It ends … well, it ends about how you’d think for Barry.

This is an incredible story, one that seems too outlandish to be anything but true. Obviously, there are liberties taken with any “based on a true story” story, but even so – there’s plenty of weird, weird truth here.

The framing device that Liman and screenwriter Gary Spinelli use to allow Barry to tell his own tale is ingenious. Essentially, the film incorporates interstitial scenes of Barry himself telling the story to a video camera that he’s using to document his version of events in case anything should happen to him. It not only allows context, but places us firmly into Barry’s timeline – we’re not necessarily seeing what actually happened, but what Barry chooses to remember. It’s a smart choice, one that works very well.

In some ways, “American Made” plays like an action movie with most of the action removed. That’s meant as a compliment – keeping the action sensibility while not overly worrying about set pieces strikes just the right larger-than-life tone that suits a story like this.

But really, the main reason this movie works is because of the star at its center. Tom Cruise is an undeniably strange dude in any number of ways, but there’s no denying that he can be absolutely magnetic on a movie screen. This role wields that Cruise charisma as a weapon, using his charm and aw-shucks demeanor as a veneer over a kind of sweaty desperation. The best late-period Cruise roles are the ones where he allows us to see his easy grins and eye twinkles as a mask – something Liman clearly understands and embraces. There are some strong performances among the supporting cast – Gleeson’s glib Schafer is very good; ditto Wright and Edda – but this is unquestionably Cruise’s movie.

And that’s a good thing – Barry Seal is an ethically-questionable hustler, morally flexible to the point of being mercenary. Cruise’s laid-back performance makes Barry so engaging – so likeable – that we almost forget that he’s kind of a terrible guy who did some pretty terrible things for some pretty terrible people.

“American Made” isn’t a great movie, but it is an entertaining one. And much of the credit for that can be laid at the feet of Cruise; this film reaffirms the fact that he remains one of the last few true movie stars.

[4 out of 5]

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