'American Made' dips into the darkness

"American Made" with Tom Cruise ( photo)

"American Made's" Barry Seal (as played by Tom Cruise) embodies the dark side of the American Dream. He is the embodiment of what America can offer to visionaries and dreamers, a life of wealth and fame thanks to hard work, ingenuity, and an otherworldly amount of ambition. It's the method of attaining those dreams that matters, and it's the driving force behind director Doug Liman's pretty excellent dark comedy.

"American Made" is one of those movies that sports the "based on a true story" slogan, which usually means minor amounts of truth overwhelmed by numerous exaggerations and flat out lies. And this movie is guilty as sin in stretching the truth, with the lies making Barry Seal appear less awful than the real-life counterpart in the early parts of the movie. But even the fantastical aspects don't mask the truth of what happened completely, as the story itself is pretty close to the insanity depicted in this film. The movie's version of Seal's life starts with the man as a TWA pilot recruited by the CIA (Domhnall Gleeson plays the mysterious CIA agent who recruits him) to spy on Communist fighters in Latin America in the late '70s. It snowballs into a connection with the Medellin Cartel led Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia), Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda), and Carlos Ledher (Fredy Yate Escobar), and the trafficking of drugs and guns in the early to mid '80s between the US, Colombia, Nicaragua, and Panama. Seal earns an almost impossible amount of money for his effort, enough for his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) and his family can live a lavish life in the boonies of Arkansas, at least until everything inevitably falls apart.

The truth is somewhere in there - Seal definitely had connections with the Medellin Cartel and worked for the DEA - although Liman and writer Gary Spinelli care less about the man and more about how easy it is for a man's drive to achieve the American Dream can lead him into an impossible situation. The American Dream is connected with exceptionalism, and Seal is an exceptional risk taker and charmer, willing to put passengers in danger to reduce the boredom he suffers as a commercial airline pilot. His desire for a more interesting life puts him into what turns out to be an untenable situation, stuck in the middle of a war between the US government and violent drug runners. Any side he picks is the wrong one; siding with the cartel means he has to evade government officials, while spying for the government makes him a target for Escobar and company. An average man wouldn't end up in that situation; it takes a person with a certain type of genius - the word used most often to describe Seal in American Made - to get stuck that deep into a quagmire.

"American Made" wouldn't succeed as it does without the dramatic and comedic efforts of Cruise. Although he is a few years too old for the part - to the point that Cruise could be Wright's father - Cruise excels at providing the charisma, charm, and moderate insanity required to sell himself to so many different sides. This is an old school movie star role that requires wattage and the right type of smirk or smile to keep the audience a little far away from thoughts about how truly terrible of a person Seal is. Cruise turns a criminal into a beguiling scoundrel and wins viewers over despite his actions.

That turn in character reflects the surprisingly light tone Spinelli and Liman implement for a movie with this subject matter. Even amid some brutal murders and moments of uncomfortable intensity, "American Made" finds the humor in the horror and plays it to the hilt. Sequences that could easily be shown as dark are instead mined for a few jokes or an pretty good sight gag involving an impressive amount of cocaine. At least until the end, in which the actual repercussions of Seal's actions come to fruition and the movie pauses for a moment to let the actual horrors sink in. The idea of the American Dream never covers the consequences of unchecked aspirations, making the logical but still shocking ending to this movie more powerful than expected.

Rating: Four and a half out of five stars

Ask Away

Target audience: Tom Cruise fans and folks who are interested in the cocaine trade.

Take the whole family?: This is an R movie for several justifiable reasons, so just make it a date night.

Theater or Netflix?: It's good enough to deserve a cinema visit.

Academy Awards odds?: I don't think the movie will get that much, but I can see Tom Cruise getting a nomination for Best Actor. This is the best performance Cruise has offered in a long while - a cliche that does apply in this case - and without him this movie wouldn't be as good as it is.

Watch this as well?: The 2001 movie 'Blow,' featuring Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz, a real-life adaptation of another American connected with Pablo Escobar, is pretty interesting and has a strong performance by Depp as George Jung.

Rating: R Run time: 115 minutes