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An increasingly popular revisionist take on the 1986 blockbuster “Top Gun” posits Tom Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell as the movie’s villain. Indeed, looking past director Tony Scott’s rather gloriously florid, jingoistic homoeroticism, one can see the Cruise character as a reckless, petulant child whose “need for speed” constantly endangers his fellow pilots and winds up getting his best friend killed.
Pitched somewhere between a recruiting ad and a beefcake calendar, the movie’s thrillingly empty, rah-rah sensory overload launched Cruise’s career into the stratosphere, to a point where he’s still talking about making a sequel some 30 years later.
“Top Gun: Maverick” is reportedly in pre-production and scheduled for release in 2019, which seems strange since Cruise’s raucous new comedy “American Made” feels deliberately designed as a barbed riposte to the movie that made him a superstar. Here he’s once again playing a hotshot pilot at the height of the Cold War, breaking all the rules with a charismatic swagger and super-cool aviator shades. Except this time, our hero is helping the CIA covertly arm the Contras in Nicaragua while smuggling cocaine for the Medellín Cartel. That’s right kids, Maverick really is a villain.
Loosely based on the true story of DEA informant Barry Seal, who according to conflicting reports may or may not have been hung out to dry by Oliver North and company during the Iran-Contra quagmire, “American Made” is a rip-roaring romp through the Reagan administration’s many foreign policy malfeasances and misdeeds. The movie’s archly satirical masterstroke is casting Cruise — our prototypical 1980s all-American go-getter — as the blithely amoral hustler at its center. It’s a grand performance of toothy grins, aw-shucks charm and pure movie star magnetism. Barry’s so much fun to watch you keep forgetting he’s one of the bad guys.
Director Doug Liman adopts the irreverently narrated, rock ‘n’ roll montage style Martin Scorsese basically invented with “Goodfellas.” (It’s funny to remember that Cruise almost starred as Henry Hill in the 1990 classic.) We’ve seen this sort of sarcastic structure applied to less successful criminal history lessons like “Blow,” “Lord of War” and last year’s abysmal “War Dogs,” but none of those films had this one’s bratty, propulsive energy. More importantly, none of those movies had Tom Cruise.
We begin in 1978 with Barry Seal working as a TWA airline captain so bored he messes with the controls mid-fight just to wake up his co-pilot and give the passengers a jolt. He’s busted smuggling Cuban cigars by a smarmy CIA agent (Domhnall Gleeson) who puts him to work taking aerial surveillance shots of Central American revolutionary armies. Barry’s adrenaline junkie derring-do catches the eye of Pablo Escobar and friends, and since the agency is supplying him with information regarding every law enforcement operation in the friendly skies, a trafficking operation seems mutually beneficial even before Ronald Reagan decides to start an illegal war with the Sandinistas.
All these entanglements become so convoluted the movie eventually resorts to a cartoon diagramming Barry’s various smuggling schemes. Director Liman’s father served as general counsel for the Senate committee that investigated Iran-Contra, so he knows this material inside and out, and yet he avoids the self-serious tone of most muckrakers in favor of jaunty, absurdist comedy. Sometimes the movie can feel a bit too glib for its own good — an awful lot of innocent people died as a result of Barry’s actions — but there’s a genuine anger simmering underneath these laughs.
Liman and Cruise last teamed for 2014’s “Edge of Tomorrow,” a ridiculously entertaining sci-fi riff on “Groundhog Day” that tore down and rebuilt the star’s image by killing him a thousand times. Cruise is more aware of and willing to tweak his screen persona than any actor since Clint Eastwood, and with “American Made” he and Liman have turned Barry Seal’s story into an archetypal “Tom Cruise movie” that could’ve been made in the decade during which it’s set — except tilted just a few crucial degrees to the left.
Despite all better judgement, we still can’t help but root for this cocky flyboy while he wheedles his way out of one outrageous, impossible situation after another, earning the ire of the DEA, ATF and FBI. (“Mr. Seal, you’ve hit the trifecta,” a pissed-off prosecutor snarls.) A typical Hollywood take would presumably pivot on Barry suffering a crisis of conscience and boringly finding some sort of redemption in the final reels.
Instead, “American Made” boldly keeps the character as shallow and opportunistic as the era the movie seeks to skewer. By the end, even Cruise's contagious Cheshire grin looks like an act of desperation, our middle-aged Maverick finally meeting the consequences of his need for speed.