It is not looking like a good year for Tom Cruise.
The superstar has put his name and smile behind “American Made,” a rough-and-tumble action thriller that fails for the same reasons his summer blockbuster “The Mummy” did: an unbalanced tone, exacerbated by Cruise’s misapplied charm.
In this “based on a true story” tale, Cruise plays Barry Seal, a TWA pilot flying dull milk runs in the late 1970s, augmenting his income and keeping himself entertained by smuggling Cuban cigars bought at his Canadian layovers. This illegal side business draws the attention of a shadowy guy (played by Domhnall Gleeson) who identifies himself as Schafer and carefully doesn’t identify himself as CIA.
Schafer makes Seal a new job: to fly a twin-engine prop plane over certain Central American countries, snapping spy photos of Communist insurgent groups. Seal loves the new job, even if the insurgents sometimes shoot at him.
He wants more money, though, so Schafer sends him to Colombia for more surveillance work. That leads to Seal meeting Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda), Carlos Ledher (Fredy Yate Escobar) and Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia), the leaders of the Medellin drug cartel. Under threat of death, Seal strikes a deal to fly Medellin cocaine to the swamps of Louisiana, at $2,000 a kilo.
Thus begins Seal’s wild escapades, which bring him into contact not only with Colombian drug lords but also the anti-Sandinista “Contras” in Nicaragua. It also has him moving his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen), and their kids from Louisiana to Arkansas, one step ahead of the FBI, DEA and various state and local law-enforcement agencies.
Director Doug Liman (who helmed Cruise in the whip-smart science-fiction tale “Edge of Tomorrow”) and screenwriter Gary Spinelli let Seal describe his exploits in to-the-camera video diaries, less a penitent confessing his sins and more a guy bragging about his conquests at the bar. If Seal felt remorse about smuggling millions of dollars of cocaine into the country, or being responsible for more than a few deaths, Cruise’s aw-shucks manner never lets it show.
“American Made” feels way too sprightly, too jokey, for a movie about a guy who — despite his rationalizations — was a well-paid drug mule. The tone is closer to a Coen brothers movie than, say, Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas,” which this movie resembles in subject matter and first-person narrative structure.
If Cruise were playing Charles Manson or Hannibal Lecter, no matter how seriously he took the role, his puckish persona would still bleed through and make him too likable. In a movie like “American Made,” that imbalance works against the movie’s intentions and makes dancing with drug lords seem uncomfortably appealing.
* * 1/2
Tom Cruise’s charm gets used to dubious ends in this true story of a pilot who goes to work for the CIA and Colombian drug lords.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Sept. 29.
Rating • R, for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity.
Running time • 115 minutes.