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American Made is a shallow showcase for the doggedly ageless Tom Cruise

He’s still a movie star, but he needs to start evolving — fast.

Tom Cruise in American Made
Tom Cruise in American Made
Universal Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

”Glib” is probably the right word for American Made, a movie that seems to exist purely to be Tom Cruise’s rebound after his disastrous attempt to reboot The Mummy earlier this summer. It lets him run around and fly planes and crack a winning smile. Success.

It’s not that American Made doesn’t have anything to say; it’s just that whatever it has to say has been said better somewhere else. It’s not bad; it’s not good, either. It’s just shallow.

In that respect, American Made (from Edge of Tomorrow and Bourne Identity director Doug Liman) most closely harks back to the storied Hollywood tradition of the dumb-but-fun action movie, the kind where you’re not totally sure what the story was, or why it was, but at the end you kind of shake your head and say, “Well, that sure was a movie!”

With that in mind, it’s mostly worth evaluating American Made as a star vehicle. And thus we cannot escape the big question it presents: What’s going on with its star, Tom Cruise?

Where have you gone, Tom Cruise? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

For people of a certain age — i.e., mine — Tom Cruise has always been not just a movie star but the movie star, the one you think of instantly when someone brings up the term. The year I was born, he starred in Risky Business. Jerry Maguire came out when I was a freshman in high school, and Minority Report when I was in college. He can play an action star, or a leading man, or, on a handful of glorious occasions (as in Magnolia and Tropic Thunder), an actual character. But whatever else he is, Cruise is a movie star.

In that time, he’s also gone through the full publicity cycle that’s often reserved only for actresses. His marriages and divorces, the rumors that he’s actually gay, and the infamous couch-jumping incident would be enough; add to that his position as the most famous spokesperson for the oppressive religion/pyramid scheme Scientology and you’ve got yourself a true bad publicity bingo, most of which he brought on himself.

Tom Cruise in American Made
Tom Cruise in American Made.
Universal Pictures

But Cruise, coated in Teflon, just keeps working. And he’s endlessly, wholesomely seductive, almost impossible to resist. It’s the smile, sure, and the nostalgia too. But Cruise’s turns in movies like Edge of Tomorrow and Mission: Impossible continue to confirm that he’s more than capable of leading an action franchise. Watching him, you become convinced that he’s having a ton of fun but also taking his job very seriously — even now, in his 50s, he likes to do as many of his own stunts as possible. He really wants to please you and me. A lot of the time, he succeeds.

Yet even boyishly charming movie stars must someday submit to the tyranny of age. Tom Cruise turned 55 in July, and he certainly doesn’t look worse for wear; like a number of actors of roughly his vintage (Brad Pitt, Will Smith, George Clooney, Steve Coogan), age seems to have ironed out some of the goofiness and imparted an air of, if not wisdom, something like it.

Unfortunately, Cruise (or his agent) seems to be convinced that to be an action star, you need to be young. Where this conviction comes from is unclear, as it’s obviously not true. Cruise is strong and agile and he can run from explosions (boy does he love to run) — nobody needs him to pretend he’s 20 years younger than he is, too.

But it’s been getting more noticeable that he’s surrounded by younger stars and playing characters whose ages may not be stated outright but seem like they’re definitely not 55.

Which brings us back to American Made.

American Made is a good vehicle for Cruise. But the clock is running out on doing the same old shtick.

In American Made Cruise plays Barry Seal, loosely based on a real-life Barry Seal who was a decade younger than Cruise in the period during which the film takes place. Seal is a TSA pilot engaged in some petty smuggling who’s recruited by a CIA operative (Domhnall Gleeson), ostensibly named Schafer, to start flying shady deals for them instead.

The CIA kept Seal very busy: They sent him to Panama to get intel from Manuel Noriega; they had him fly weapons to the contras in Nicaragua, which led to smuggling drugs for the cartels. (The real Barry Seal was murdered in 1986 by contract killers hired by Pablo Escobar.) The movie makes it clear: Whenever the CIA was up to shady business during the Carter and Reagan administrations, if South America was involved, then Barry was too.

Domnhall Gleeson and Tom Cruise in American Made
Domhnall Gleeson and Tom Cruise in American Made.
Universal Pictures

And they paid well. American Made plays out like a madcap screwball comedy with an edge, and the funniest recurring jokes have to do with Seal being so loaded with cash he literally has nowhere to store it all. He also has to hastily move his family from Baton Rouge to middle-of-nowhere Arkansas, something his long-suffering wife (Sarah Wright) puts up with partly because he seems to now have purpose and vigor after years of languishing as an exhausted commercial pilot.

Wright, by the way, is 22 years younger than Cruise, but the movie doesn’t play it that way, which is in keeping with most of Cruise’s movies. But the increasing age gap between Cruise and his female co-stars is what’s making the star’s refusal to age more apparent. At the release of The Mummy this summer, Josh Spiegel wrote about this in the Hollywood Reporter, noting that “Cruise is hardly the first male star to play opposite younger women, but the more he tries to stay the same age, the more obvious the age gap becomes and the less believable the repartee.”

Hollywood movies have long been full of preposterously age-gapped couples, starlets paired to leading men in proportions that far exceed the percentage of similar couples in real life (though maybe not in Hollywood itself, where Cruise after all was married for six years to Katie Holmes, 17 years his junior).

Tom Cruise and Sarah Wright in American Made
Tom Cruise and Sarah Wright in American Made.
Universal Pictures

But in Cruise’s case, the problem isn’t so much the relationship as the aesthetics. The more the movies try to pass him off as maybe just 10 years older than the women he’s paired with onscreen — not to mention other characters who are meant to be roughly around his age — the more it becomes apparent that he’s getting cast out of sync with his characters’ ages. The effect is less strange, more uncanny. You know something’s off. You just can’t put your finger on it.

Good news, though: Cruise has lots of options. He could start playing action stars his own age — the evidence is strong that he can pull it off just fine. He could also follow the lead of men in his age cohort and resume his leading-man status, but as a man of 55, maybe with grown kids, with a midlife crisis thrown in for good measure.

Or he could reach back into his earlier work for inspiration. It sounds like a joke, but I’m not really joking: Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder, playing a balding and shapeless movie executive named Les Grossman, was a revelation to me at the time. It was proof that the guy not only was at least self-aware enough about his heartthrob image to be comfortable going way off into the other direction, but he was having so much fun.

And Tom Cruise can act! He’s done it before, and he can do it again. If he decided to pivot to being a character actor, few people would argue. It would inject new life into what’s now a predictable career, even when he’s in a good movie.

But without some kind of change, Cruise may find himself aging out of the game entirely, with younger action stars who cut their teeth on comic book movies and older actors who aren’t opposed to a few gray hairs (like 53-year-old Keanu Reeves in the John Wick franchise) soaking up some of his market share. American Made is a reminder that Cruise can still be a lot of fun to watch — but even for Tom Cruise, the clock doesn’t stop ticking.

American Made opens in US theaters on September 28.