‘American Made,’ a curious cynical action-thriller


It’s time for another history lesson, so Tom Cruise explains how a commercial pilot gets deeply involved with some of the most notorious characters of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Based on a “true lie,” a CIA operative is integral to the rise of the Madellin Cartel, Panama strongman Manuel Noriega, Nicaragua’s Contras and Oliver North.

Recently, Cruise has been on a downward spiral, so “American Made” gives this charismatic star a fresh opportunity to flash that boyish grin and flaunt his confidence with a devil-may-care attitude. In the right setting, we enjoy Tommy giving his ego a run in the yard. For his morally challenged character, the sky is never the limit.

In this international escapade, TWA maverick pilot Barry Seal gets his kicks scaring the wits out of passengers, claiming turbulence. When approached by the shady Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), Barry jumps at the chance for some real action, shooting reconnaissance photos of guerillas over banana republics for the CIA. As he asks if this is legal, Monty assures him, “We’re the good guys, just don’t get caught.”

Not wanting to worry wife Lucy (Sarah Wright), Barry explains his new airplane is for a new business he has created. With the proximity of his targets, the CIA asks Barry to expand his tasks by delivering cash to Col. Manuel Noriega in exchange for valuable information on Russian insurgents. With such frequent trips, some wannabe drug lords offer Barry a generous fee to fly their product to the USA on his return trips.

Barry is a man with a plan, and soon entangled in some very risky business. He is now a spy, a bagman and a drug mule. Although the CIA is aware of his illicit activities, they are willing to look the other way, provided he continues to do their bidding. Barry is in way over his head, but just can’t seem to help himself, “I always leap before I look.”

This is one of those outrageous (and real) stories that gets curiouser and curiouser. When the communist backed Sandinistas form in Nicaragua, President Reagan’s point man, Lt. Col. Oliver North decides to secretly arm the opposing Contras and train them to fight the enemies of democracy, wherever they may be.

Needing top gun pilots, Barry’s solo operation is expanded to a fleet of aircraft with a motley crew of aviators that hardly seem housebroken, but can perform the daring aerial maneuvers for their expanding charter. With orders from the White House, Barry now becomes integral to one of the most controversial covert operations in U.S. history.

Barry was defined as a patriot, but investigators estimate his side business yielded up to five billion dollars. Paid in cash, he was making money faster than he could launder it, so he stored it in cabinets, closets and even buried it in the yard. At its height, the Medellin Cartel supplied 96% of our nation’s cocaine. Barry was pursued by the state police, ATF, DEA and FBI, everyone but NCIS. But, it was the Cartel who finally caught up to him.

Director Doug Limon (“Bourne Identity” “Edge of Tomorrow”) seems to understand that the “Goodfellas” story of a heroic anti-hero has been done before, so he doesn’t try to challenge that standard. Although the level of intensity remains at full throttle, writer Gary Spinelli keeps it light with well placed humor throughout while Cruise mugs and charms his way through each scene. This is fast-paced, light-weight and upbeat entertainment.

“American Made” is 115 minutes and rated R for language and sexuality. Arthur L. Liman, the director’s father, was the chief counsel for the Senate investigation on the case. The actual facts of the events are murky as there were so many entangled relationships; it was difficult to tell the good guys from the bad.

This is Tom Cruise’ best performance in some time. We root for the anti-hero making money so fast and so easy, but grateful the film does not glorify the incessant immoral and illegal activities. This is not a great movie, but welcome after the last few weeks. We wondered if Barry’s reaction to the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms would be, “Cool, whose bringing the chips?”

Ron’s Rating: B+
Leigh’s Rating: C