At the beginning of American Made, Doug Liman’s true(-ish) tale of white collar greed and geopolitical meddling in the Reagan era, commercial pilot Barry Seal makes a snap decision to dip his TWA plane in the middle of a routine flight, simply so he can panic sleeping passengers for his own amusement. From the beginning, we recognize the amorality lurking within a man who will happily go on to act as courier for both the CIA and the Medellin drug cartel. He could, even should, be a repulsive figure, but as played by Tom Cruise, Seal instead becomes a charming rogue. Cruise makes Seal almost relatable, a man stultified by the 9 to 5 who craves adventure, who just wants his cut in a time of capitalism gone wild. For the first time in what feels like an age, the star delivers genuine laughs, with Seal in one scene handing a suburban teenage fistfuls of money in exchange for the kid’s bike before proceeding to breathlessly pedal away, authorities in pursuit, while blanketed in his own cocaine. The film itself, an enjoyably throwaway caper in the vein of The Wolf of Wall Street, is light, but Cruise is stronger in it than he’s been in years.
Over the past decade or so, Tom Cruise has tended to play the straightforward hero, often in physically demanding but dramatically slack projects like the Mission: Impossible films and this year’s Mummy reboot. Those movies position Cruise as a kind of silent-era style daredevil, pulling off ever more insurance-troubling stunts as the 55-year-old furiously attempts to defy his own mortality. What these films have failed to do, however, is test Cruise as a dramatic performer. The likes of Ethan Hunt and The Mummy’s Nick Morton barely read as people, merely vessels through which Cruise gets to prove his continued worth as a physical specimen in ageist Hollywood.
American Made is a tentative course correction. It welcomes back a Tom Cruise not seen since Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs in 2007: arresting, engaged, human. For Doug Liman, his star is more than a glorified stuntman, and in his latest the director gives a lesson in how to weaponize Cruise the actor.
As far back as 1983’s Risky Business, in which Cruise’s high schooler becomes a pimp for a day in order to raise some cash, Cruise has displayed a rare likeability; he’s so inoffensively pleasant-looking, disarmingly agreeable, and naturally charismatic that he can test audience sympathies to the limit. He’s also one of the most self-assured people in Hollywood, something acknowledged and utilized in movies like Jerry Maguire. When Cruise is cast in the part of a hustler, a vulgar and obnoxious pick-up guru (Magnolia), an emotionally blank hitman (Collateral) or, as in American Made, an opportunistic drug runner, he rises to the challenge of humanizing a character who in another performer’s hands might be irredeemable. Cruise excels at playing bad men in part because of his almost sociopathic need to be liked, but perhaps more so because of his determination to prove himself when an obstacle is placed in his way.
There are stars who repeatedly endeavor to make something interesting of the uncomplicated good guy character. Road to Perdition and The Ladykillers aside, Tom Hanks has built a career out of playing captivatingly decent people in trying situations. For Cruise, the good guy role doesn’t seem to activate a desire to work harder, but instead encourages him to relax into an inoffensive persona: the flashy grin, easy charm, and hollow sincerity that he’s preferred to offer audiences of late.
Giving Cruise a complex character doesn’t necessarily offer him enough motivation, either. Jack Reacher—an almost mythical Iraq veteran and genius amateur detective, who one day decided to live off-grid as a loner with an extreme, near-paranoid aversion to authority—could be a gift to the right actor, but Cruise plays the character flat and forgettable. Reacher might have layers, but he’s still the unquestionable hero, and as often as Cruise now plays those, the characters that bring out the best in him are the ones furthest from the kind of person he wants to be, or at least furthest from the blandly cheery public persona he’s been cultivating his entire career.
It’s as though Cruise thrives only when his characters possess actively wretched qualities. Heroes, even the flawed ones (like “good Nazi” Claus von Stauffenberg in Valkyrie), put Cruise on autopilot. But make Cruise a coke-peddling narcissist fuelling discontent south of the border just so he can bring some excitement to his life, and you force this popularity-driven star to do somersaults as he tries to make the character sympathetic. It forces this famously private celebrity, so amiable yet guarded in public, to reveal some actual depth, to indulge the dark side we all suspect he has.
What’s most unfortunate about Cruise lately avoiding darker sensibilities to pose as the all-American hero is that he understands darkness in men as well as any actor can. See Cruise in Rain Man, as the entitled, greedy brother to Dustin Hoffman’s handicapped Raymond Babbitt, or in Eyes Wide Shut, probably Cruise’s most troubling work. Cruise appears totally in tune with director Stanley Kubrick’s seedy New York odyssey about marital discord and sexual jealousy, giving one of his most naked performances—akin almost to Brando in Last Tango in Paris—and dissecting the type of outwardly contented American male Cruise has publicly always played.
Even in something as popcorn-oriented as Edge of Tomorrow, Cruise and Liman’s previous collaboration, Cruise can deliver the goods so long as the character he inhabits is a tad unsavory. The star begins Liman’s time loop action sci-fi as a cowardly army officer, ready to blackmail superiors and abuse his rank to avoid combat. In one early scene, Brendan Gleeson’s General orders Cruise’s Major Bill Cage into battle and Cage attempts to negotiate his way out; that flashy grin smacks of smarm, the easy charm is laced with desperation, and the sincerity feels real, ugly, the Cruise forcefield of insouciant calm cracking to reveal a man terrified of dying before his time. This is a Cruise character to dislike, that you frankly feel embarrassed for, and one who rings as painfully true.
Cruise’s role in Edge of Tomorrow, like the one in American Made, made him appear alive again after years of anonymous performances in blah blockbusters like Oblivion and Knight and Day. That’s why it’s heartening to hear Cruise and Liman already have two more projects lined up together. Liman, and any filmmaker who understands the actor is best when tempted away from his nice-guy default, might yet make Cruise a star worth watching again.