The movie’s called “American Made” and it stars Tom Cruise, so you’re pretty sure it’s going to be a can-do hero parade of patriotic jingoism. Right?
Doug Liman’s film — pop-art bright with concealed teeth — is the story of Barry Seal, a small plane pilot who in the 1970s and early ’80s ran Central American surveillance flights for the CIA. After that, he flew cocaine for the Medellin cartel, then guns for the Contras, then anti-Sandinista sting operations for the DEA, before finally being brought down by the FBI. General Manuel Noriega of Panama and Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North of the White House also make appearances. It was a hell of a life while it lasted.
Cruise plays Seal as a handsome, cheerfully amoral good ol’ boy, and you just know he knows that Barry is what Maverick from “Top Gun” would probably have become after a few years, a few pounds, and a few disappointments. Domhnall Gleeson, who’s everywhere these days, is Seal’s (fictionalized) CIA handler Monty Schafer, dangling riches and the prospect of excitement while working his way up the cubicle ladder back at the office. For a while Seal keeps his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), in the dark, but once the carry-on bags full of cash start showing up, she’s on board too.
Narrated by Cruise’s character from an on-the-run VHS recording session in the mid-1980s, the movie feels similar in structure and spirit to “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a supposedly cautionary tale that mostly revels in high-life absurdity. Barry’s always slightly in the dark about the bigger picture, always at the mercy and whims of men like Schafer, or Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía) and his Colombian cocaine colleagues, or the two-bit Nicaraguan thugs paid to be Contras by the CIA and flown into a secret training base in Arkansas, where half of them immediately go AWOL.
It’s all spinning just faster than Barry can control. Much of the movie’s jaded fun comes from watching him get out of one scrape after another, whether it’s a Colombian landing field that’s a wee bit short, or a DEA patrol plane on Seal’s tail, or an FBI investigator (E. Roger Mitchell) curious about why every bank in Barry’s tiny Arkansas town is overflowing with cash. Like “Wolf,” the film holds out the all-American dream of an easy buck then shows its comic/karmic downside.
Eventually it has to come crashing down, and you know that chapter has begun with the appearance of Caleb Landry Jones as Bobby’s no-account brother-in-law, JB. Bleary-eyed and half-shaven, pale as a blind cave fish, Jones is one of those actors who scream trouble just by showing up. A human worst-case scenario, he specializes in characters who are simultaneously stupid, spineless, and mean, and “American Made” benefits greatly from his presence, not least in putting him next to Teflon Tom, whose Seal seems offended by Jones/JB on a molecular level.
The title itself does multiple duty, implying that a go-getting charlatan like Barry Seal could only be made in America but also, and more critically, that the entire disastrous history of Central America in the ’70s and ’80s was a product of US chicanery. The only thing I missed was the outrage — “American Made” never really tips its hand and says this was wrong — but maybe I’m just being a fuddy-duddy. Using loose, playful camerawork (César Charlone) and editing (Andrew Mondshein), Liman (“Swingers,” “The Bourne Identity”) bakes the moral erosion deep into the cracks of the story. He assumes the audience will do the math. Maybe they even will.
As for Cruise, this is his second tour with Liman — “Edge of Tomorrow,” from 2014, was both more ridiculous and better — and I think the two men enjoy tinkering under the hood of Tom Cruise, Action Hero. The star has always been a smarter actor than he gets credit for and he’s long since proved he can play both sides of his persona. (See: “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Magnolia,” “Collateral.”) “American Made” really does deserve to be on a double-bill with “Top Gun,” and I’m betting Cruise knows it. The first film embodies the glorious shallowness of the Reagan Era. The second wallows in that shallowness while hinting at everything it cost.
Directed by Doug Liman. Written by Gary Spinelli. Starring Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 115 minutes. R (some sexual content, partial nudity).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org