[Screen It]


(2017) (Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson) (R)

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Drama/Black Comedy: An airline pilot is hired by the CIA to fly covert flights for them involving their operations in Central America, all while simultaneously being hired by a drug cartel to smuggle their cocaine into the U.S.
It's the late 1970s and Barry Seal (TOM CRUISE) is a TWA pilot based in Louisiana who makes a little extra cash occasionally smuggling Cuban cigars into the U.S. His actions have not gone unnoticed by the feds, but rather than arrest him, CIA agent Monty Schafer (DOMHNALL GLEESON) hires him to fly covert recon flights over Central America. Keeping his wife, Lucy (SARAH WRIGHT), in the dark by saying he's starting his own airline consulting business, Barry begins his CIA work that then goes on to include delivering money to Col. Noriega in exchange for intel he provides the U.S. government.

That draws the attention of drug figures Jorge Ochoa (ALEJANDRO EDDA) and Pablo Escobar (MAURICIO MEJIA), but rather than have him killed, they hire him to fly their cocaine back into the U.S. in exchange for a handsome handler's fee. He agrees and the money starts pouring in, especially when the feds move him to Arkansas, give him a lot of land, and have him fly guns down to the Contras in Nicaragua, all while flying their soldiers back to the States for training.

With his unusual business booming, Barry hires additional smuggler pilots, but things become complicated when Lucy's good-for-nothing, freeloader brother, JB (CALEB LANDRY JONES), shows up and finds his sister and brother-in-law living a life of wealth. From that point on, Barry does what he can to keep him from hampering or derailing their operations, all while becoming deeper entrenched with both the feds and the Central American drug lords.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Back in 1986, people knew who Tom Cruise was thanks to his roles in movies such as "Taps" and especially "Risky Business." But he didn't become a mega superstar until the release of "Top Gun." Playing United States Naval Aviator LT Pete "Maverick" Mitchell like few others likely could -- the devil may care attitude as mixed with youthful brashness, the sunglasses, the megawatt smile and, of course, the muscular flying -- and created a general onscreen persona that's outlasted that film.

The now 55-year-old actor returns to the skies once again flying for the U.S. government -- albeit in a decidedly different fashion -- in "American Made," a fairly entertaining flick that clearly benefits from Cruise returning to form (and perhaps is a warm-up for his return to the "Top Gun" universe with 2019's planned sequel).

In this film -- that's loosely based on real-life events -- he plays Barry Seal, a TWA pilot who went from smuggling Cuban cigars into the States on the side to flying covert recon flights over Central America for the CIA. That eventually segued into also flying in money for a certain Col. Noriega in exchange for intel that he brought out, smuggling cocaine back into the U.S. for none other than the Medellin Cartel, and then flying arms to the Contra fighters in Nicaragua and some of their fighters back to Arkansas for covert training.

It's certainly a fact is stranger than fiction sort of tale, and while I went in expecting a straightforward action meets straight drama sort of approach, screenwriter Gary Spinelli and director Doug Liman (who worked with cruise on the sci-fi pic "Edge of Tomorrow") had other designs on the material and tonal approach they were going to take.

And I'm glad they did as the black comedy meets satire worldview serves the film well, as does Cruise's return to playing the sort of devil may care character that made him famous. While his character here is clearly of the anti-hero variety, the actor makes him so gosh darn charming while simultaneously being egocentric, self-serving and capitalistically criminal that you simply can't take your eyes off him or the picture.

While not quite of the same caliber in terms of cinematic masterpieces, it reminded me a great deal of Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas," what with its mixture of comedy and darker material, crazy plot, hyper gonzo editing and pace, overall tone, and after the fact, voice-over narration courtesy of our protagonist.

I have no idea how much is true, how much is of the tall tale variety and what other amounts might be otherwise completely fabricated. But I can say I was never bored as the protagonist takes his marching orders from his CIA handler (Domhnall Gleeson), deals with the cartel leaders (Alejandro Edda as Jorge Ochoa and Mauricio Mejia as Pablo Escobar), and brings his wife (Sarah Wright) along for the ride that becomes increasingly luxurious, even if they start running out of places to launder, spend or simply stash and bury their bags and bags of cold hard cash.

And while it's a fun sort of escapist flick on its own, it's also a damning if still entertaining indictment of past U.S. government policies, activities, and such in foreign operations. Thankfully, Liman and company don't point too many fingers or exhibit sanctimonious tendencies as they simply let the material speak for itself.

And what that mainly says is hey, come along for this fun ride and watch a movie star return to the sort of charming form that made him famous and so easy to watch on the screen. Far better than I was expecting, "American Made" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 26, 2017 / Posted September 29, 2017

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