The tagline for “American Made,” a breezily, at times woozily rollicking Tom Cruise vehicle, announces that it is “based on a true lie” — though the movie also asserts that it is based on a true story. But who’s quibbling? This is, after all, a Hollywood fantasy starring Mr. Cruise as Barry Seal, a real-life smuggler. An enigma with multiple chins, Mr. Seal was apparently known as El Gordo (the Fat Man), a name he may have picked up while working for a drug cartel, the C.I.A. or the Drug Enforcement Administration.
It can be hard to keep tabs on the movie’s Barry, a pilot who racks up lots of miles while serving different masters. When the story opens, he is flying for T.W.A. and bored out of his evidently 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 takes a wild turn when a shady C.I.A. smiler, Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), makes Barry an offer to help his country or something. Before long, Barry is cozying up to Pablo Escobar and smuggling cocaine and AK-47s across the Americas. Every so often, he drops into 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,” in its self-amused tone and skittering rhythms, though, is closer to the thriller “Edge of Tomorrow,” Mr. Liman and Mr. Cruise’s movie about a man — a wrong-guy, wrong-place type — who dies to live another day only to die (repeat). Mr. Liman likes playing with Mr. Cruise’s persona, say, by messing up that famous smile, and he clearly likes letting his star 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 jaw-droppingly outlandish role in that notorious affair, which, among many other byzantine turns, involved 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 show up in “American Made” either as fictionalized supporting characters or as themselves, smiling and slinking in archival images.
Written by Gary Spinelli, “American Made” goes down easily, especially if you don’t let the historical record with its real-world stakes bother you. Mr. Cruise’s brisk, ingratiating performance — all smiles, hard-charging physicality and beads of sweat — does a lot to soften 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 some more, delivering coke and accumulating suitcases of cash that he buries 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,” which spins like a top and has the visually beguiling, somewhat jaundiced look of a faded old Polaroid. 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 side attraction in many articles, books, documentaries and hard-core propaganda flicks, including some hinged on the Conspiratorial Industrial Complex which emerged during the Clinton presidency. Mr. Seal was also the subject of “Doublecrossed,” a 1991 HBO docudrama starring Dennis Hopper (which is vaguely amusing if only because Mr. Hopper played a very different coke smuggler in “Easy Rider”).
“American Made” 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 downscale version of Margot Robbie’s character in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Lucy has a few tangy moments, but she and the kids mostly enhance the visual design, much like the period cars and costumes.