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American Made gets enough of a buzz going to make it an entertaining ride.

Cruise Control

Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) deals with drug lords
Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) deals with drug lords

As far as Tom Cruise movies go, this is a good one.

This time, Tom’s not the horrifically ill-conceived character he portrayed in this summer’s ghastly The Mummy. He’s not the overly-cocky Maverick, as seen in Top Gun. He’s not another Ethan Hunt action figure from the Mission: Impossible series. Parts of his character in American Made, Barry Seal, are a little like Jerry in Jerry Maguire. Barry’s got a heart for his family, but’ he’s also a self-assured opportunist who gets mired in all sorts of turmoil.

And Barry Seal was a real-life human being who went through a lot during the period of 1978-1986. American Made is based on a true story. Or, as the marketing materials put it, it’s “based on a true lie.”

Even so, given the complexities of the situations Barry faces, the intrigue, the dangers, the ups and downs, there’s something about Tom Cruise that can’t mine the material of all its riches. American Made remains stuck in Tom Cruise movie star mode when somebody who’s more of a chameleon — Christian Bale, Tom Hardy and Joaquin Phoenix come to mind — could’ve pushed this movie into significantly more emotional territory.


For American Made, Cruise reteams with Doug Liman, who directed him in Edge of Tomorrow — an example of a great Tom Cruise movie, one that was a little under-appreciated upon its theatrical release.

Liman has a lot of fun with the material and the timeline, playing with color palettes and grains and tones to mimic the look and feel of film stock from the 1970s and 1980s, plus he throws in some lo-def home video camera footage and pays homage to good ol’ VHS tape.

As the story picks up steam, the narrative bounces between the late ’70s and mid ’80s as Barry’s exploits are revealed in an agreeably non-linear fashion. In short, he gets mired in a CIA operation (under a not-so-clever front operation called IAC), seeks riches by becoming a drug smuggler at the same time, then converts to being a gun-runner for the US government. Drug smuggling, gun running, money laundering. His exploits find him facing off with the perfect trifecta of the DEA, the ATF and the FBI.

Well done, Barry.

Along the way, Barry acquires a pardon from Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and at one point almost pleads for something more severe than 1,000 hours of community service while seeking the safety of a 4’x6’ cell that could shield him from his newly-minted drug cartel enemies. That particular episode follows on the heels of Barry’s heroic work in getting cartel members on camera, with the guarantee the photos were for classified, internal use only. Then they showed up on TV during one of Pres. Reagan’s addresses to the nation.

The mischief and dumbfounding decisions made by virtually all parties (and, by the way, this all ultimately ties into the Iran-Contra affair of the mid ’80s) makes for an entertaining 2-hour ride while also – as a sort of thematic collateral damage – putting the world into context. Yes. There are so many reasons why the world’s a mess today and Barry’s story figures heavily in that mess.

Just Say No

What goes on here is nuts. It’s the sort of “you’ve gotta be kidding” madness that sits comfortably alongside other stylishly-presented crazy true stories, like Catch Me If You Can, Gold, Tucker, The Big Short, Fargo... Uh, make that Argo.

In this one, big historical names such as Lt. Col. Oliver North, Nancy Reagan, Pablo Escobar and Manuel Noriega are brought back to the public consciousness while previously unheard of names such as Barry and Lucy Seal, Agent Schafer and Dana Sibota are finally give their due, for better or worse.

The absurdity of it all makes post-movie fact-checking a virtual lock for many moviegoers.

Did Barry really have money almost literally coming out of the woodwork? It was stashed everywhere in his sprawling empire, based in obscure Mena, Arkansas. His wealth grew to such an exorbitant state, it commandeered the local bank’s entire vault — and an auxiliary vault was built for the rest of the town’s banking assets.

Did Barry really have an idiot brother-in-law named JB?

Well, one thing’s for sure: A photo of Barry Seal as portrayed by Tom Cruise with the drug lords — one of the photos exposed on national TV in 1984 — has a real-life counterpart with the real Barry Seal and the real drug lords. Look It up online.

It’s a small enough clue to indicate, yes, it’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world.