American Made review
“Are you sure about this Death Star, Dom?” © 2017 Universal Studios

I’ve been watching his movies since I was a child, and Tom Cruise, the world’s most high profile actor, doesn’t often stray from the action genre or playing the good guy. Not that he’s incapable of putting on a great performance in the occasional indie, whether as a sex guru with daddy issues in Magnolia or a senator with presidential ambitions in Lions for Lambs.

But while the 52-year-old is steeped in action movies and impossible stunts, his recent efforts such as Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (see my review) and The Mummy reboot (see my review) haven’t been great. Which is why it’s a pleasure to see him challenging himself with another unconventional role – even if he does end up playing the same old kind of Tom Cruise role.

American Made: Based on a True Lie is loosely inspired by the real-life exploits of Louisiana pilot Barry Seal, who smuggled arms and drugs for the Medellin cartel and the US government. In the movie, Seal’s (Cruise) exploits are enhanced to include working for the CIA in a glib, blackly humorous story.

When we first meet our hero, Seal is a man in a daze, bored out of his mind in his job as a commercial airline pilot. Then CIA agent Schafer (a wonderful Domhnall Gleeson, who’ll also be in The Last Jedi) comes into his life and asks him to work for his country. “America at its f***ing finest, and we could use someone like you,” declares Schafer.

American Made review
© 2017 Universal Studios

So Seal starts flying reconnaissance missions over South America, and it isn’t long before he’s approached by the Medellin cartel to smuggle cocaine into the US. Then before you know it, Seal is also smuggling arms to rebels in Nicaragua and laundering millions in drug money.

It’s all driven by Cruise’s star power, irrepressible energy and that winning smile, inconsistent Southern accent notwithstanding. Think of him as an older, more amoral Maverick. There are shades of Goodfellas – complete with ironic voiceover – and Narcos (see our review of season 3), by way of a quick history lesson on the Cold War and Reagan-era America.

There’s a sense of Seal being perfectly happy to be carried along by the tide – one with lots and lots of money – and it turns into one hell of a ride. One minute he’s having sex with his wife while flying, the next he’s being threatened at gunpoint by Pablo Escobar.

American Made review
They were hoping to score roles in Narcos. © 2017 Universal Studios

There’s an impressive cameo by Jayma Mays as hard-nosed prosecutor Dana Sibota, but that’s about as far as it goes for the women in American Made. Sarah Wright doesn’t have much to do either besides play the devoted wife.

But Seal is all flash and not a whole lot of substance. While director Doug Liman helms the story expertly, we never quite get to the bottom of why Seal, a devoted family man, chooses to work for a drug cartel. The good guys and the bad guys love him in equal measure, but the plot becomes increasingly convoluted.

Then when the party inevitably ends, the resolution feels distinctly unsatisfying, albeit shocking. But it’s a solid performance from Cruise, who needs to do more movies like this, except with scripts that do a better job of characterisation. Even Tom Cruise can’t be an action star forever.

American Made: Based on a True Lie opens on Thursday, August 31.