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Tom Cruise finds a perfect role in 'American Made'

It's never been easy being a 55-year old male movie star in America. Tom Cruise has it tougher than most. But, to his eternal credit, he's managing it remarkably well. If you doubt it, take a look at "American Made."

George Clooney is a year older than Cruise. Long ago, he set up his lemonade stand as a director -- often a good one (his next, "Suburbicon" is coming up) -- which cancels out a lot of actorly vagaries.

When Gary Cooper was Cruise's age, he had only five more years to live and looked even older in "Friendly Persuasion." When Jimmy Stewart was Cruise's age, one of his greatest masterpieces, Hitchcock's "Vertigo" was five years behind him. (The next year after that, he was called "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.")

Five years after HIS 55th birthday, Cary Grant quit movies cold. Fate would let him be Cary Grant much longer. But he knew that what the movies had called "Cary Grant" was over.

Cruise, though, is cursed. His curse is his hopeless, eternal boyishness. His face doesn't lend itself to any of the standard strategies of movie stars in maturity. He tries. And when he does sometimes, as in "Jack Reacher," he gets soundly thrashed for his hubris.

Not this week. Good for him. He found a role that is perfect for him -- a reckless, immature pilot named Barry Seal. He starts out as a TWA pilot who thinks it's funny on  long flight to deliberately give a whole sleeping plane (including his co-pilot) a little artificial bump in the air to wake them up.

His lack of grown-up affect is noticed by a fellow named Schaefer with the CIA. It's the '80's. Did he ever think about getting out of commercial aviation and flying reconnaissance missions in South America in a two-engine plane? The two-engine plane he would be given to fly would be a beauty.

Now there's a job that a hopelessly overgrown cowboy can get behind. Just when the CIA becomes enamored of his aerial photography, the nascent Medellin cartel -- including paranoid roughneck Pablo Escobar -- wonders if he might take on another gig while he's in their neck of the woods. They need to get their product -- cocaine, mostly-- up north. So maybe he could fly it back along with his photos -- after he drops off guns to the contras, of course.

Soon he's flying drugs, guns, and people -- Contras to be trained in Arkansas to fight Ronald Reagan's hated Sandinistas.

Barry and his wife and kids have, in the meantime, been forced to live in that tiny Arkansas town. He develops a reputation among all those in the business of delivering unsavory goods that, as the commercial goes, if you absoutely, positively have to have it there overnight, Barry's your man. He delivers.

So while some of the least principled human beings from all walks of life are taking advantage of his gifts as a pilot and his newfound talents as a businessman, he is making so much money that no one knows what to do with it all.

Cash is tough to handle. It's not enough to buy every business in rural Arkansas. Or to bury the cash in the backyard. Or stash it in every closet in the house. The money just keeps bursting out of every hole and crack.

It's all jaunty and garishly lighthearted, every bit of it.

Director Doug Liman has seen to that. He's one of the best action directors we have. He's the man who animated Jason Bourne, made the amazing "The Wall" last year and introduced Brad Pitt to Angelina Jolie on the set of "Mr. and Mrs. Smith." If you absolutely, positively need a movie to move, he's your man.

Cruise is perfect for this. It doesn't matter how old Barry is. So what if Sarah Wright, who plays his wife, is 20 years younger? He's permanently afflicted with the moral vision of a 17-year old hotshot. (Compare, by the way, to the misgivings of Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. in "Air America" another movie about the nexus of the CIA and drugs.)

At some point, all this jocularity may curdle in your brain as you remember that every commodity Barry delivers has the capacity to kill. His friends on all sides assume death to be the price of doing business. We only really see the death of one we've come to know but Liman makes sure he's too stupid for us to care about. You won't bother thinking about him until you're safely out of this moral universe and into the parking lot.

It's Liman's baby. And Cruise's too, as a star who commands audience affection even when the character he's playing doesn't begin to deserve it.

Score this round for Cruise. A perfect role for him in a ticklish period, in the company of a director who knows what to do with him.

Enjoyment is virtually guaranteed. Misgivings are optional. They're for the walk out into the parking lot -- and after.

Movie Review

“American Made”

3 stars (out of four)

Starring Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson and Sarah Wright. Directed by Doug Liman. 115 minutes. Rated R for language, brief sex and nudity.

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