If there’s been one constant and defining quality among the characters Tom Cruise has played during his career, it’s that they’re almost always in control. Maverick, Ethan Hunt, Jack Reacher — these are heroes who seem to survive by being one step ahead at all times. It’s not too much of a stretch to think that the same probably applies to the actor playing them. Cruise is one of the last survivors of an era when A-list movie stars reigned supreme. And it’s fair to assume that his desire — his need — for control is the reason why.

Maybe that’s why his new film, American Made, is such a refreshing curveball. He’s playing someone who only thinks he’s in control when, in fact, he’s constantly outwitted, overmatched, and a step or three behind. Reteaming with Doug Liman, the director behind Cruise’s best movie of the past decade, 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, Cruise stars as pilot Barry Seal, who was recruited by the CIA in the ’70s and got swept up into some of the U.S. government’s shadiest covert shenanigans in the ’80s. He is a patsy who thinks he’s a patriot.

American Made is loosely based (emphasis on “loosely”) on a real story. And Liman’s handling is reminiscent of such films as GoodFellas, Blow, and American Hustle in both its stranger-than-fiction true-crime provenance and its caffeinated rise-and-fall epic sweep. Cruise’s Seal is a hotshot TWA pilot who’s tapped by an ambitious CIA handler (Domhnall Gleeson) to fly over Latin American hot spots and snap pictures from his twin-propeller plane. Soon he’s making cash-for-intel handoffs with Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, running drugs for Pablo Escobar, and acting as a go-between in the Iran-Contra affair. He goes along with it all because he never stops to think too hard about what he’s doing. Plus, his wife (Sarah Wright Olsen) back home in Arkansas likes the spoils. When it all goes belly-up, everyone seems to know that he’ll be the fall guy — except him.

Seal is not a likable guy exactly. He’s actually kind of a greedy, amoral dirtbag. Which is why Liman and screenwriter Gary Spinelli need someone like Cruise to sell him. And sell him he does. The movie spins like a top for two hours. With his pearly shark’s grin, always-underestimated comic timing, and macho daredevil streak, Cruise rips into the role and summons a side of himself that he rarely lets his guard down enough to reveal. He’s playing that quintessential American type: a jerk who’s so entertaining to watch, you almost hate yourself for rooting for him. Cruise should lose control more often. B+

American Made
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