As soon as the Universal logo flickers and switches to its 1970s look and the disco music starts, we know what we’re in for with the cocaine-smuggling adventure “American Made.” This is a romp and a half. Maybe even three.
Director Doug Liman’s film casts a nostalgic golden filter on a dark and dramatic period in U.S. history. Drug cartel-related violence plagued the Southeast while the first lady urged everyone to “just say no.” Meanwhile, the American government was essentially allowing the illegal import of cocaine while providing guns to the rebels fighting the Communist Sandinista army in Central America.
This is all told through the true life story of pilot, drug smuggler and informant Barry Seal (Tom Cruise). The hotshot flyboy is a commercial TWA pilot who takes up with the CIA and Medellin cartel because he’s got mouths to feed and an elastic moral compass.
Through Barry’s perspective, “American Made” is the Iran-Contra Affair for Dummies, explained in simple terms and sometimes animation via Barry’s voiceover. With a Louisiana drawl, Barry joshes about how his top secret CIA gig taking surveillance photos of the Communist armies turned into delivering Soviet AK-47s to rebel fighters, and returning with thousands of kilos of cocaine, dodging DEA and FBI planes along the way. All the while, he was raking in more cash than he could keep track of.
Magnetically energetic as always, Cruise merely serves as the star vessel through which this story passes. The supporting actors steal the show, including Caleb Landry Jones as his redneck brother-in-law, and a smarmy Domhnall Gleeson as Barry’s CIA contact. Jesse Plemons is also great as a naïve small town sheriff.
But this is Barry’s film. Somecreative license has been taken for dramatic effect, but the governmental machinations seem pretty real. It feels at times that “American Made” has too light a touch, and the bad guys only take a few real shots for their responsibility in these events. Our sense of President Ronald Reagan here is as a cultural figure, the Gipper, rather than political actor.
“American Made” has some glorious moments when it’s firing on all cylinders, but it can’t sustain that throughout. It references “Goodfellas,” “Blow” and “Scarface” but never achieves the internal consistency of those films. This is more roughshod. But somehow, despite its jitters, “American Made” has a shaggy-dog charm.
Rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity. 1:55. Fayette, Georgetown, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester.