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The tagline for American Made 2017, a breezily, occasionally dizzily rollicking Tom Cruise vehicle, announces that it is “based on a true lie” — even though the film also asserts that it is based on a real event. But who’s quibbling? This is, after all, a Hollywood fantasy featuring Mr. Cruise as Barry Seal, a real-life smuggler. An enigma with multiple chins, Mr. Seal was seemingly known as El Gordo (the Fat Man), an alias he may have picked up while working under a drug cartel, the C.I.A. or the Drug Enforcement Administration.
It can be challenging to keep tabs on the film’s Barry, a pilot who racks up lots of miles while serving different bosses. When the story kicks off, he is flying for T.W.A. and bored out of his obviously simple, rather dangerously restless mind. On the job, he amuses himself by flipping a few switches, jerking the controls and abruptly awakening sleeping passengers. His life turns on a wild path when a suspicious C.I.A. smiler, Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), offers Barry to help his nation or something. Before long, Barry is cozying up to Pablo Escobar and smuggling cocaine and AK-47s across the Americas. Every now and then, he pops up at Panama to swap packages with that country’s strongman, Manuel Noriega.
This kind of secret world is familiar terrain for the director Doug Liman, who kick-started the Bourne spy franchise and directed “Fair Game,” a fictional take on some real-world intrigue involving Valerie Plame Wilson, a former C.I.A. officer, and her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, a onetime diplomat. American Made 2017 movie in its self-amused tone and fast-paced rhythms, yet, is closer to the thriller Edge of Tomorrow Mr. Liman and Mr. Cruise’s film about a man — a wrong-guy, wrong-place kind — who dies to live another day just to die again (repeat). Mr. Liman loves playing with Mr. Cruise’s persona, say, by messing up that famous smile, and he obviously likes allowing his star to strut and glide. Mr. Liman also likes stories about people with secret selves. Maybe it’s an interest he picked up from his father, Arthur L. Liman, who was the chief counsel to the Senate committee during its 1987 Iran-contra investigation. The real Mr. Seal may have played a breath-takingly outlandish role in that notorious affair, which, among many other byzantine turns, included the National Security Council funneling aid to the Nicaraguan contras. The scandal encompassed a vast cast of characters that included President Ronald Reagan and Lieut. Col. Oliver L. North. A few featured in American Made 2017 movie either as fictionalized supporting roles or as themselves, smiling and slinking in archival shots.
Written by Gary Spinelli, American Made 2017 film goes down easily, especially if you don’t let the historical record with its real-world stakes bother you. Mr. Cruise’s brisk, captivating performance — all smiles, hard-charging physicality and beads of sweat — helps a lot in softening the edges. But Mr. Liman doesn’t press Mr. Cruise to dig into the character, and the actor mostly hurdles forward in a movie that never gets around to asking what makes Barry run and why. So Barry just runs and he flies and he flies a bit more, delivering coke and accumulating suitcases filled with cash that he hides and stashes in closets. (It’s hard not to think that Mr. Cruise signed on to the movie so he could do all his own flying.)
There’s a lot going for American Made 2017 movie which spins much like a top and has the visually alluring, somewhat jaundiced look of a faded old Polaroid picture. So it’s too bad that Mr. Liman himself didn’t burrow in here as a filmmaker. The real Mr. Seal has been both the main and minor attraction in many articles, novels, documentaries and hard-core propaganda movies, including some hinged on the Conspiratorial Industrial Complex which seek out during the Clinton presidency. Mr. Seal was also the subject of “Doublecrossed,” a 1991 HBO docudrama starring Dennis Hopper (which is vaguely exciting if only because Mr. Hopper portrayed a very different coke smuggler in “Easy Rider”).
There are moments when it feels as if Mr. Liman’s breakneck pacing is somewhat an attempt to make us distracted, to stop us from looking or thinking too hard about the grotesquely corrupt circus parading onscreen. Mr. Cruise’s performance often seems similarly calculated. Barry likes to leap before he thinks: “All this is legal?” he asks, scarcely pausing before plunging into the fray — and Mr. Cruise regularly widens his eyes in what seems to be an effort to convey Barry’s incredulity. It’s dissembling that is about as convincing as the Wolf leering in granny’s nightie. In truth, this Barry is just another ugly American, a happy hustler with a what-me-worry smile and a foot planted on another man’s throat.
American Made 2017 movie encourages and earns your laughter, although it also provokes skepticism, particularly in its attempt to portray Barry as a picaresque hero, one of those rogues tumbling and swaggering from adventure to adventure in a world that’s more corrupt than they are. After all, it asks, how bad can Barry really be, especially given the company he keeps? He doesn’t kill anyone, not exactly, and he’s nice to his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen), and their kids. A slightly downgrade version of Margot Robbie’s role in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Lucy has a few tangy moments, but she and the kids for the most part enhance the visual design, much like the period cars and costumes.