The Tom Cruise of old is back in “American Made,” a slickly produced biopic that deftly mixes comedy, crime, and drama, all while coasting on star power. Whereas a number of recent Cruise performances have been in service of lesser material, that’s not the case here. Cruise puts on the movie star charm, but Doug Liman‘s work matches him beat for beat. What could have been either too silly a film or too dour a one finds just the right tone to work. For a tale that throws around names like Pablo Escobar and Oliver North, it’s surprisingly jaunty.

“American Made” can’t match “Edge of Tomorrow” for originality, but it’s another solid collaboration between Cruise and Liman. For the former, it’s a charismatic role that also asks him to be far more unsavory than usual. For the latter, it’s a chance mix in comedic elements with some fairly heavy themes. Together, they both offer up something unique to add to their resumes. If this never becomes worthy of awards consideration, it’s still a nice little pleasant surprise for early October.

The film is a biopic of Barry Seal (Cruise), a pilot who ended up caught in the Iran Contra Affair. At the start, he’s a simple pilot for TWA, with a side business smuggling Cuban cigars into the country. This activity catches the eye of a CIA agent (Domhnall Gleeson), one looking for just this type of a guy. Almost instantly, he recruits Barry to work for the government, flying small planes down to Central America on intelligence gathering operations. Barry is told to keep his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) in the dark about it all, though that becomes harder once he begins doing double duty, running drugs. Of course, then the money starts flowing in.

Once Barry is established as the guy you need when you really need a package delivered, he works hard to neglect that he’s in way over his head. For a good while, he’s making it work, secretly becoming insanely wealthy, to the point where he essentially owns a small town. The sheriff (Jesse Plemons) thinks nothing of it, though his wife (Lola Kirke) is far more suspicious. Then, Lucy’s brother JB (Caleb Landry Jones) arrives on the scene and accidentally begins Barry’s downfall. By the time the story reaches its inevitable conclusion, Barry will have been a central figure in a scandal that almost ended the Reagan Administration.

Tom Cruise is turning the charm all the way up here, and it helps make his anti-hero someone worth following. Barry is a good family man at his core, but he’s also greedy, prone to acting without thinking, and easily swayed to do the wrong thing. Cruise rarely gets to dance on this side of the fence, and he’s clearly relishing the opportunity. He’s not a full-on villain like in “Collateral,” but this is certainly an antihero role at best. If “Jerry Maguire” ran drugs for a cartel, this might be who that Cruise character idolized.

Beyond Cruise, the cast is almost an afterthought. Lucy Wright gets some spunky moments, but she’s essentially just another long-suffering cinematic spouse. Domhnall Gleeson is underutilized, while the duo of Lola Kirke and Jesse Plemons seem to have ended up with much of their material on the cutting room floor. As for Caleb Landry Jones, he’s off-putting, though that’s intentional. Other small supporting turns here include Alejandro Edda, Robert Farrior, Benito Martinez, Jayma Mays, Mauricio Mejía, and more.

Director Doug Liman manages to take what ultimately is a pretty heavy premise and have some fun with it. Long a visual stylist, Liman teams with DP César Charlone to give “American Made” a distinctive look. The script by Gary Spinelli is a bit thin, so this is essential. We never really get under Barry’s skin. Cruise sells the character, but Spinelli doesn’t set him up with too much to start with. Christophe Beck composed the score, which is solid yet unremarkable.

If you like Cruise, “American Made” should really entertain you. It’s very much a star vehicle for the man, but it also allows him to be a lot less wholesome than usual. At a time where some long for the days of Cruise disappearing into a role, this at least hints at those talents. At the very least, he should clearly keep working with Liman. They bring out the best in each other, that’s for sure.

“American Made” is distributed by Universal Pictures and opens in theaters on October 29.

GRADE: (★★★)