There was a time Tom Cruise was not an industry pariah, when he was considered a very good actor. In the years spanning 1983-2008, Cruise gave some brilliant performances earning three Academy Award nominations and frankly, he should have had a few more. For The Color of Money (1986), Rain Man (1988), The Last Samurai (2003) and Tropic Thunder (2008) he deserved to be nominated, and for both Jerry Maguire (1996) and Magnolia (1999) he deserved to win.
But over the last nine years his work onscreen has been spotty, though he personally was brilliant in Rock of Ages (2012), the film like much of his work, was lacking. The only film that really challenged and showcased his abilities was the mind bending Edge of Tomorrow (2014), which hit with critics but not audiences, though it has been re-discovered on Blu Ray.
Cruise is in trouble, in danger of that carefully planned career slipping from him. He needed a hit. He has it. Even if the film is not a massive blockbuster, his performance is among his best, a reminder of what he can do when in a demanding role. Based on a true story, American Made, directed by Doug Liman offers the actor his best role since Tropic Thunder (2008) and he smacks it right out of the park.
As Barry Seal, a commercial pilot for TWA, Cruise excels. Approached by the CIA to run missions for them he accepts, but then finds himself on the other side of the law when the dreaded Medellin cartel in Columbia asks him to run cocaine into the United States. A hot dog, flying loose when he can, Seal accepts, oblivious to the fact when he has outlived his usefulness to them they will shoot him in the head. Obviously he cannot let one discover what he does for the other.
Walking a double-edged sword, realizing the danger he is living every waking moment, it seems to fuel him like gasoline on fire.
The part allows Cruise to do what he does best, portray a cocky, brash guy who jumps into danger before realizing how bad it really is. Fast paced, with a bouncy energy that turns dark very quickly, the film is wildly enjoyable to watch. Liman has the perfect tone going throughout and never loses touch.
Cruise is terrific as Seal, but this is his type of role. Flawed man gets caught up in circumstances beyond his control. The actor gives a rock solid performance reminding his critics of his acting talents when in the right role with the right director.
Oscars? Not this time, but he could be back on the path. He so wants validation as an artist, he has worked for it his entire life and though a titan in world box office, he wants respect as an actor. This could be the road to that. He needs to leave the big action movies behind him, walk away from the Mission: Impossible franchise and do some small independent films in which he really, truly challenges himself. I could have seen Cruise in Hostiles, in the Christian Bale role, or in Hell and High Water (2016) in the Chris Pine part, but he needs people to find him again. And trust him again. He needs to put risk back into his work. Only he has control of this. Time he exerted his control for the better, for himself. Worry only about the art, nothing matters more.