Cruise goes rogue

‘Amer­i­can Made’ gives Cruise bad boy role

Pawtucket Times - - FRONT PAGE - By MICHAEL O’SUL­LI­VAN

Barry Seal, a real-life, al­beit mi­nor, fig­ure in the Iran-con­tra scan­dal, takes cen­ter stage in the fact-based yet heav­ily fic­tion­al­ized "Amer­i­can Made," with such ma­jor fig­ures as Oliver North (Robert Far­rior) and Ron­ald Rea­gan (de­picted in archival news clips) rel­e­gated to the pe­riph­ery. A young Ge­orge W. Bush makes a fleet­ing cameo — via the im­per­son­ation of ac­tor Con­nor Trin­neer — and the name Bill Clin­ton, then-gover­nor of Arkansas, where much of the film is set, gets dropped.

Di­rected by Doug Li­man from a cheeky screen­play by Gary Spinelli, the an­tic saga un­folds from the point of view of Barry (Tom Cruise), be­gin­ning in 1978 as a se­ries of darkly comic flash­backs, all of which are in­ter­spersed with Barry's un­re­li­able, hind­sight-is-20/60 video-di­ary nar­ra­tion from late 1985 and early 1986, just be­fore the film's im­prob­a­ble but true-ish events come crash­ing down around him.

The Barry we first meet is as much Cruise as Seal, a rogu­ish TWA pi­lot who is at once more hand­some and charm­ing than the guy on whom this story is based ever could have been, and less straight-ar­row a char­ac­ter than we're used to see­ing the ac­tor play. As the film opens, Barry is shown cre­at­ing tur­bu­lence from the cock­pit of his plane, jerk­ing the nose of his jet vi­o­lently up and down to wake his sleep­ing copi­lot. "Sully" Sul­len­berger he ain't.

Al­most im­me­di­ately there­after, Barry is shown be­ing re­cruited by a CIA han­dler called, pseudony­mously, "Schafer" (Domh­nall Glee­son), to un­der­take an aerial photo re­con­nais­sance of in­sur­gents in Cen­tral Amer­ica. Just as quickly, this pa­tri­otic mis­sion leads to a side gig as a drug courier for the Medellin car­tel in Colom­bia, through a com­bi­na­tion of cin­e­mat­i­cally con­ve­nient but his­tor­i­cally im­plau­si­ble co­er­cion and sweettalk — in­volv­ing an of­fer of $2,000 per kilo of co­caine trans­ported.

Be­fore you know it, Barry is si­mul­ta­ne­ously run­ning drugs, weapons and the Nicaraguan free­dom fight­ers known as con­tras be­tween South and Cen­tral Amer­ica and his home base in Mena, Arkansas, where he em­ploys a crew of four fel­low pi­lots, all un­der the wink­ing eye of "Schafer." There's so much cash be­ing made that it over­flows from Sam­sonite suit­cases, with bills stick­ing out like car­toon­ish cor­rup­tion mark­ers.

And that's re­ally what "Amer­i­can Made" is: a car­toon. Shot with the grainy col­ors of a yel­lowed photo al­bum from the '80s, the movie takes a larky and en­ter­tain­ing look at a chap­ter of U.S. his­tory through a fun­house mir­ror, dark­ened only slightly by the shadow of vi­o­lence that looms over it, but it rarely clouds the film's sunny de­meanor. Un­like the real events, this tale is largely a con­se­quence-free one, de­spite the cen­tral pres­ence of such fig­ures as Pablo Es­co­bar (Mauri­cio Me­jía), the no­to­ri­ously vi­o­lent drug lord, and his co­horts Jorge Ochoa (Ale­jan­dro Edda) and Car­los Le­hder (Fredy Yate Es­co­bar). Be­fore the film's ig­no­min­ious con­clu­sion, real vi­o­lence rears its head only once, in the form of a car bomb.

Li­man knows how to keep the con­vo­luted, al­most im­pos­si­bly far­fetched story on the rails, with­out los­ing our at­ten­tion, and he adds many de­tails that will bring a smile. Un­like the CIA of the di­rec­tor's "The Bourne Iden­tity," for in­stance — a sleekly ef­fi­cient, high-tech world of shad­owy op­er­a­tives and Machi­avel­lian con­trol — the agency that "Schafer" works for is an in­com­pe­tent, flu­o­res­cent-lit cu­bi­cle farm pop­u­lated by pa­per-push­ing desk jock­eys.

Cruise, for his part, seems al­most too big for the part, a su­per­star slum­ming as a slightly seedy bag­man. But he brings a game will­ing­ness to get down and dirty as Barry — his tooth is knocked out while the char­ac­ter is ar­rested. For much of the film, he's cov­ered with sweat, grime, blood or — in one scene, af­ter crash-land­ing his plane in a res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hood while elud­ing air­borne DEA agents —co­caine. It's out­landish stuff all right, but prob­a­bly only a lit­tle bit more pre­pos­ter­ous than the true story. It's also pretty funny.

Un­til, sud­denly, it isn't. Al­though "Amer­i­can Made" spins a yarn of scot-free malfea­sance, all the money and coke and chi­canery must even­tu­ally come to an end, as it did in real life. Even as Cruise keeps us root­ing for Barry, Li­man re­minds us that this is a story of bad guys. The bal­lad of Barry Seal doesn't end very well, but it does bet­ter by us — or at least those of us who are look­ing for a shred of verisimil­i­tude. "Amer­i­can Made" closes this chap­ter of punch-drunk his­tory, not with the tit­ter of forced laugh­ter, but with a real-world bang.

Two and one-half stars. Rated R. Con­tains strong lan­guage, sex, nu­dity and some vi­o­lence. 115 min­utes.

Univer­sal Pic­tures

Tom Cruise as Barry Seal in "Amer­i­can Made."

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