Doug Liman, the director of “The Bourne Identity,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” and “Edge of Tomorrow,” chronicles the rip-roaring, real-life exploits of good ole boy Barry Seal in “American Made” (***1/2 OUT OF ****), an exhilarating action-comedy, crime thriller that combines elements of the Mel Gibson epic “Air America” (1990) and the 2015 Netflix series “Narcos.” If you saw the first season of “Narcos,” Barry Seal went out in a brief blaze of glory. At one time the youngest commercial airliner pilot for TWA, the Baton Rouge, Louisiana native got intertwined with the CIA, the DEA, Pablo Escobar and the murderous Medellín Cartel as well as the Reagan White House, and lived up to the image of ‘a wild and crazy guy’ before the Colombians finally snuffed him. Mind you, “American Made” isn’t the first time that Hollywood has depicted Seal’s audacious antics. The late, great Dennis Hopper portrayed Seal in Roger Young’s made-for-television docudrama “Double-Crossed” (1991) with Danny Trejo. Later, Michael Paré had a supporting role as Barry Seal in Brad Furman’s “The Infiltrator” (2016) with Bryan Cranston as an undercover DEA agent. More recently, Dylan Bruno played Seal in an episode of “Narcos.” Nevertheless, the charismatic Cruise delivers a broad, light-hearted performance as the amoral drug smuggling aviator in what amounts to a modern-day version of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” in the skies. Basically, as Barry Seal, Cruise dominates “American Made” while other equally historic personages lurk on the periphery, including President Ronald Reagan and Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North. Helming this entertaining, 115-minute, R-rated opus with a light touch, Liman doesn’t subject audiences to the usual blood-splattered carnage that characterizes the typical cartel crime expose. Although “Stash House” writer Gary Spinelli has altered the facts here and there to make Barry Seal appear more sympathetic, “American Made” qualifies as one of the better cartel crime sagas which shows audiences that you cannot smuggle your cocaine and live to tell about it without the fatal consequences catching up with you.
“American Made” opens with TWA pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise of “Top Gun”) flying passengers here, there, and everywhere, and growing bored and restless with being a just another pilot when he isn’t smuggling Cuban cigars. In one scene, our prankster protagonist decides to wake up his serenely sleeping passengers as well as his snoozing co-pilot during a flight by switching off the auto-pilot and creating a little turbulence of his own. Eventually, weary of the predictable routine of shuttling passengers, Seal quits TWA just after his co-pilot and he complete their pre-flight checklist. Grabbing his gear, he exits the jetliner without a backward glance and goes off to work for an enigmatic guy named Monty ‘Schafer’ (Domhnall Gleeson of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) who furnishes him a twin-engined aircraft and clearance to fly patriotic missions for the CIA. Initially, Seal refuses to let his sweet but superficial wife Lucy (Sarah Wright of “The House Bunny”) in on his new gig until he runs into trouble smuggling cocaine for Pablo Escobar. Colombian troops bust Escobar and his associates while Seal winds up in jail and loses a tooth until ‘Schafer’ shows up to bail him out. The catch is that Louisiana authorities will be knocking on his front door at dawn the following day if Seal doesn’t uproot his family on a moment’s notice and relocate them to Mena, Arkansas. Lucy goes reluctantly along with his harebrained scheme, and the police with their blue and red dome light flashing careen pass him on the way out of town. Talk about a cliffhanger escape!
Barry finds himself running guns to Contras in Nicaragua for ‘Schafer’ when he isn’t pausing in Panama to swap contraband with General Manuel Noriega (newcomer Alberto Ospino) or flying more cocaine into Louisiana for Pablo Escobar. Basically, as long as Seal flies for the CIA, the Agency doesn’t care what he does on his own time. Furthermore, to protect their investment in his services, the CIA provide him with information so he can elude the DEA. Seal winds up hiring four other misfit pilots, and they outfly the DEA back and forth from Central and South America. The last thing our free-wheeling hero could ever imagine happening happens: he makes a ton of money but he doesn’t have enough bank accounts and front companies to conceal it. Indeed, he buries so much cash on property that the CIA has given him that he has nowhere else to hide aside from stuffing in suitcases in his hanger. At this point, the devil enters paradise in the person of Lucy’s sleazy younger brother J.B. (Caleb Landry Jones of “X-Men: First Class”), who decides to take advantage of all those $100 bills cluttering up closets. Suddenly, not only do the authorities bust J.B., but the CIA decides to let the FBI, ATF, DEA, and the Arkansas State Police arrest him. In a last-ditch effort to save his wife and family, Seal agrees a mission for the White House and Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North to incriminate Pablo Escobar. Naturally, the Oval Office doesn’t keep its end of the bargain.
Despite its historical basis in 1970s and the 1980s, the last thing that director Doug Liman wants audiences to do is take Barry Seal seriously, and “American Made” amounts to a nostalgic romp through headlines of the yesteryear. The excerpts from Ronald Reagan’s Hollywood films as well as his White House press conference, featuring wife Nancy and her famous “Just Say No to Drugs” quote are thoroughly hilarious. One of the funniest scenes shows Seal crash landing a plane crammed with cocaine in a suburban neighborhood. Stumbling out of the aircraft, our clownish hero emerges covered in cocaine. Dumping packets of $100 bills at the feet of a gawking teenager, Seal takes the kid’s bike and pedals away before the DEA arrives. Rarely has twentieth century history been so nostalgic as “American Made,” and Tom Cruise will keep you in stitches as a guy who leaped before he looked.