Thirties gangsters fascinated audiences for quite some time, and my working thesis this evening posits that the Colombian drug trade now fills that same role. A subject captivating even to its eighties contemporaries (see Miami Vice and Scarface), it’s since left a trail of cinematic breadcrumbs (Clear and Present Danger, TrafficBlow, Sicario) that today lead squarely to a bounty of thematic navel-gazing: Narcos, The Infiltrator, and now Tom Cruise’s American Made.

Cruise’s installment in this blowcaine canon is a fun period piece and a solid base hit for the genre (as well as a treat for plane buffs), but it lacks the coherence and gravitas of its recent stablemates.

Cruise plays Barry Seal, a TWA pilot in the late 1970s. He’s a bit of a maverick (sorry) in a ho-hum life, getting his jollies jostling sleeping passengers with quick-stab rudder work on his 727. He has a period-correct Firebird, a period-correct blonde wife, and the attendant midlife ennui of the workaday suburban dad.

But while banking a couple bucks smuggling cigars, he’s approached by a CIA handler (Domnhall Gleeson, coming admirably close to nailing the American accent) about ditching his airline routine and flying low and fast for God and country. Cruise’s Seal takes the bait, seduced at least as much by the Piper Aerostar in the government hangar as by the promise of international intrigue. (Remember that Tom Cruise is a commercial-rated pilot himself, and certainly got the av-geek part right – his porny caresses of the sleek twin-engine airplane are twice as sensual as anything he does with his on-screen wife.)

From here, Seal launches into a series of successive (and successively stranger) government-sponsored flying missions in Central and South America that bring him face to face with the Nicaraguan Contras, Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel, and Manuel Noriega. Director Doug Liman (Swingers, Edge of Tomorrow, several Bourne films) rightly heeded his spidey sense on this one and partitioned each chapter with an on-screen title and year. Even still, it’s a bit hard to follow the stranger-than-fiction mesh of missions and situate them properly among world events in the fairly long span of time that this film covers.

We glimpse some requisite powder-fueled high-living, complete with suitcases of cash and brand new Cadillacs, though said living takes place in Mena, Arkansas and so is perhaps less aspirational than, say, the equivalent eighties wish fulfillment of Sonny Crockett or Tony Montana. Ferraris and high-rises there are not: Make do we must with small-town main streets and an AMC Gremlin X.

Cruise, as always, gives his all. But despite his best efforts (and some very pretty flying scenes, though these came at a high price), something about American Made still rings hollow. It’s properly entertaining and fairly upbeat (given its subject matter), but tries to do too much with too little at stake. Liman and Cruise never seem quite sure what kind of movie they want to make.

Ultimately, American Made is a fun night at the movies, but it’s hardly the most memorable of this well-stocked genre.

Haus Verdict: An upbeat eighties drug-smuggling romp that’s predictably entertaining — and catnip for plane lovers — but falls short of similar classics. 

American Made opened Friday September 29.

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