All Hail Tom Cruise, America's Last and Arguably Greatest Popcorn Idol

[image-1]“Tom Cruise? Meh.”

That was the immediate reaction I got from my buddy when I told him I’d seen the new Tom Cruise vehicle, American Made, out at your local megaplex today. And I get it; heck, there are a lot of you out there who might not have been so charitable to the old Cruiser. A bit more impertinent and colorful language would no doubt have been employed. 'Fuck that guy,' is what I’d probably have been more likely to hear. And ladies and gents, this reviewer gets it. I really do. The guy has come off on more than one occasion as at best a jackass and at worst a delusional, borderline psychotic alien-worshipping megalomaniac. I know. I hear you. But — but — fact is, he’s also a damn fine movie star. I’m dead serious here. Heck, I’d go as far as to say that the man is our last and arguably greatest honest-to-goodness popcorn idol.

Tom Cruise makes movies that are, for the most part, smart, slickly made, and fun to go to. He’s got more than a few all-time classics on his CV, too. His charms on the big screen, when he’s not getting tripped up having to say his own words in real life, are considerable. Be honest, we’ll all miss him when he’s gone. I mean, who’s gonna take up his mantle? Andy from Parks and Rec? Mark Wahlberg? Affleck and Damon? Call me when when any one of the previous is willing to be strapped to the side of an airplane with his hair on fire for a stunt the way The Cruise Missile is. Two things get this guy off in life: clearing his Thetan, and trying his darndest to entertain you.

Still not buying? Folks, I give you American Made, a film loosely based in fact about drug smuggling, gun running, the CIA, Reagan and the Contras, and piles and piles of ill-gotten cash. And boy is it just a ball.

It’s the late 1970’s and Barry Seal (Cruise) is bored. He’s a TWA pilot based out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who week after week traverses the same routes all over flyover country. Seal has a little side-business smuggling Cuban cigars in his carry on, but other than that he’s a fairly average joe. That is until Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleason) of the CIA shows up in an airport lounge with a proposal. Schafer offers Seal his own airplane and front business in return for Seal going on undercover flyover-and-photograph missions to monitor communists in Central America.

The burgeoning Medellin drug cartel soon gets word of this brash “gringo” pilot and approaches Seal with an even better offer: smuggling cocaine to the tune of two grand per kilo. Seal quickly agrees and almost just as quickly gets busted. And that is when, as Seal tells us in one of the after-the-fact video recordings that allow Seal to intermittently serve as narrator, “Shit gets really crazy.”

The CIA pulls Seal out of jail, but with a new purpose. Turns out Ronald Reagan wants to get guns to the Contras in order to fight the commies. So now Seal isn’t just smuggling drugs, he’s running guns, all the while amassing a fortune in paper money so boundless that he throws it in suitcases and buries those in the backyard because he’s simply run out of storage space. But money seems almost secondary to Seal as he’s having so damn much fun rubbing elbows with the likes of Pablo Escobar and outrunning — or more aptly, out-flying — the DEA and the FBI, who are unaware of the CIA’s dealings with Seal. If that all sounds like there’s a whole lot going on in this movie, it’s because there is. But the film wisely frames the goings on with a few cutaway, easily digestible history lessons that keep the pace at high speed.

Oh, wait, did I mention Barry Seal had a wife named Lucy (Sarah Wright, Walk of Shame)? I didn’t? Well, the movie barely mentions her either. You probably won’t be shocked to learn that she’s painted in only the broadest of strokes here, as she spends much of the movie popping out kids and spending money. Sigh. It’s certainly one of this film’s — and other films of the “based on a real life bad boy story” variety — weaknesses: Women and family are sidelined. The film attempts to show us the importance of familial bonds in a brief subplot where Seal’s boneheaded brother-in-law JB (Caleb Landry Jones, Get Out) shows up to gum up the works for a bit, but it does little more than to highlight the dangers inherent in Seal’s chosen criminal lifestyle.

Director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) plays the whole film like a kind of “Goodfellas Light,” and I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s fun to watch bad guys do bad things, things we all may secretly wish we could get away with in order to have the freedom these people seem to have. But where Goodfellas ends up indicting this criminal lifestyle, Liman is more interested in indicting the U.S. government for its tactics, while he and Cruise paint Seal as more of a good-time-Charlie opportunist than any kind of hardened criminal. And it certainly works for the movie. Cruise, in what has to be considered one of his best performances, infuses Seal with so much charisma and charm and brazen energy that we end up caring more about how Seal manages to juggle all the crazy shit he’s doing than fearing any kind of comeuppance.

Though Seal’s story ends the way it did in real life - the only way it ever really could have - he and we, have a hell of a good time getting there. So go on, check this movie out. I won’t tell any of your friends you went to a Tom Cruise movie and liked it.
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