AT THE MOVIES

By Noah Gittell

There are certain unalienable truths about Tom Cruise. His smile always works. He always gets the girl. He doesn’t die (except in “Collateral” when he played the villain). These qualities made Cruise the most infallible movie star of the last 35 years, but nothing lasts forever, especially in Hollywood. In his latest, Doug Liman’s “American Made,” he inhabits the same type of hero he has perfected in the past – the cocksure American winner - but for the first time there are chinks in his shiny armor. His smile is now a salesman’s smile, and it hides a deeper fear. His girl threatens to leave him constantly, and for the first time, we sense the possibility that he might not make it out alive. In a few scenes, he is actually missing a tooth, which turns that movie star grin into a comedic prop.

His character in “American Made” plays like a subversion of role that launched his movie star career: Maverick in “Top Gun.” Here, Cruise is Barry Seal, a commercial airline pilot with the skill to be much more. First in his class at the Naval Academy, he now supplements his modest income for his wife (Sarah Wright) and child by smuggling Cuban cigars in from Canada. The CIA, represented only by the smarmy, mysterious Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) use the cigars for leverage to get him engaged in more serious flying. It’s 1979, and they want him to take surveillance photos of the Communist rebels in Latin America. It’s a dangerous job, but Seal is so bored he would have done it for free.

Structurally, the story is framed by a series of videos made by Seal in a cheap motel room, putting his story down on tape in case something happens to him. It’s a well-worn technique, but it allows Cruise to speak directly to the audience, using his charisma to anchor the film’s wildly scattered plot. When he looks out at us from beneath his still-brown bangs, it remains unthinkable to look away. “It gets crazy from here,” he says at one point, and it does indeed, but we’re willing to follow him into any situation.

After winning praise for his photos of the rebels, the CIA asks him to start smuggling – first cash, then guns, then eventually the Contras themselves. His charisma, which includes a spotty Southern accent, serves him well as he befriends Pablo Escobar, who is so charmed that he starts paying him to smuggle his product back into the U.S. Soon, Seal is running missions for every side, and making money faster than he and his family can spend it.

It’s a thrilling real-life story (although highly fictionalized), even if the telling is a little too familiar. With its fast pace, electric photography, and classic rock songs on the soundtrack, director Doug Liman is working from the playbook created by Martin Scorsese in “Goodfellas.” There are also hints of “Blow” and “American Hustle.” It’s the classic rise and fall of an American outlaw — an irresistible story — but these films increasingly favor style over substance, relying on energetic editing and evocative rock songs to make up for a lack of characterization or a predictable script.

For “American Made,” it works but just barely. The formulaic script by Gary Spinelli never conjures any real drama, but Liman keeps the pedal to the floor, moving so quickly through Seal’s real-life adventures that there is no time to stop and ask what it all means. Like one of Seal’s planes, it flies through the air at record speeds, and while it’s hard to keep track of the cargo, we’re there mostly just for the thrill.

Only Cruise – the star, the performer, and the actor – brings any real significance to “American Made.” If the character is a revision of the unbeatable, exceptional Cruise persona, it could be a harbinger of a next phase in his career that is long overdue. If not, Barry Seal represents only the type of character he should be playing, those who know that American exceptionalism is just a dream and every winning streak must come to an end.

My Rating: See it in the Theater