“American Made,” cruise control

(L to R) Barry Seal (TOM CRUISE) and Monty Schafer (DOMHNALL GLEESON) in Universal Pictures’ “American Made.” Cruise reunites with his “Edge of Tomorrow” director, Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity,” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”), in this international escapade based on the outrageous (and real) exploits of a hustler and pilot unexpectedly recruited by the CIA to run one of the biggest covert operations in U.S. history. Image: Universal Pictures.

Tom Cruise isn’t like other movie stars. Even without the personal baggage, he’d be an anomaly. There have always been outsized screen personalities—Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Lee Marvin, Brad Pitt, George Clooney—but even they stretch themselves within their niches, test their artistic limitations. Outside of a few obvious departures (Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut), Cruise has never demonstrably acted.

He has two modes of screen presence, each at opposite ends of the spectrum of human emotion. Both are discernable by one of two facial features: there’s the oversized, shinning grin when he’s coasting on an intensely otherworldly charm and the y-shaped vein that protrudes from his forehead when he’s surging on overload. He’s like a robot approximation of a movie star built by a rudimentary artificial intelligence.

That isn’t necessarily critical. Cruise’s streamlined approach to screen presence imbues his movies with an almost machine-like kineticism. The downside is that Cruise’s transactional conception of craft doesn’t allow room for ambivalence or nuance. He was never going to age into one of Hollywood’s elder statesmen—Cruise has aggressively resisted the aging process—but he’s already a screen legend.

American Made, directed by Doug Liman, is ostensibly part of the fashionable wave of retro-chic, pastiche goofs exemplified by expensive throwaways like American Hustle. In tone and structure, the movie resembles a knockoff fusion of Goodfellas and a more politically overt Wolf of Wall Street. Underneath, though, American Made is a surprisingly sharp, meta-textual satire that examines and upends the appeal of its singular star.

Cruise plays Barry Seal, an ace pilot for TWA who runs contraband on the side. He’s recruited by Schaefer (Domhnall Gleeson), a shadowy and impish CIA operative hell bent on crushing Nicaraguan Sandinistas. Pumped on macho brio, Schaefer seems to love his job, and the two men form a kind of frat-boy bond over their shared affection for rule breaking. They get off on the rush of risk, and their early scenes together radiate charisma. (Gleeson, all wiry, cocky charm, overtly channels the Cruise of Risky Business and The Color of Money.) While running guns to the Contras, Seal is recruited to do the dirty work for another agency: the Medellin cartel. Before long, he’s hopping across the equator carrying AK-47s one direction and cocaine the other, all under the watchful supervision of the CIA.

It’s an outrageous story and mostly true. There was a Barry Seal who did clandestine work for the federal government. But American Made is as reckless with the facts as its Seal is with his life. (It tangentially implicates Bill Clinton in rogue CIA operations.) But none of that really matters; Barry Seal is merely a vehicle to deconstruct Tom Cruise’s career and persona.

Like Seal, Cruise is a Reagan-era success story, someone who rose to the top through sheer luck and brio. (The invocation of Top Gun couldn’t be more explicit.) Although repeated referred to as a “genius,” the movie portrays Seal as an empty-headed opportunist whose success is attributable more to energetic gusto than intelligence.

This isn’t the first time Liman has toyed with the idea of “Tom Cruise.” Edge of Tomorrow, made toward the back end of Cruise’s public nadir, took a macabre glee in basing an entire movie around repeatedly killing the star. Here, Liman beats him to a bloody pulp in a Columbian jail and knocks out a tooth. Still, Cruise (or Seal) remains unflappable, an empty vessel of idiot charm. He even grins through his frantic, third-act downfall.

Unflappability might be the key to Cruise’s success. Legendary critic David Thomson points to Rain Man as an early indicator, where he managed to survive Dustin Hoffman’s “black-hole narcissism.” Here, Cruise even transcends temporal limitations; although the movie is mostly set between 1979 and ’81, Seal looks distinctly of the 21st century. Cruise is both himself and alien, an eminently watchable cipher. More than once in American Made, Seal refers to himself as “the gringo who always delivers,” a tagline that reveals something like an answer to the Cruise question.

American Made. Directed by Doug Liman. Written by Gary Spinelli. Starring Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright, and Domhnall Gleeson. Opens in Kansas City September 28, 2017.

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