Nothing in American Made is actually American-made: not the guns, which are Russian Kalashnikovs, nor the drugs, which are made in Colombia. The American genius comes in combining drugs and guns and making a business out of it, devising an everybody-wins situation – the magic of capitalism – and becoming incredibly rich in the process. Something like that happened to Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) in the early 1980s, though it must be said that Seal was an accidental capitalist and no-one’s idea of a genius; he just got caught up in something bigger than himself, Reagan-era shady shenanigans and just pure dumb luck really.
This is a genre that’s been much in evidence lately: based-on-fact fables of the all-American hustler heading overseas to make his fortune in disreputable ways. In the past 12 months we’ve had War Dogs and Gold, with notable predecessors also including the Johnny Depp-starring Blow (the hustler has also appeared, minus the overseas angle, in films like The Wolf of Wall Street). None of these films have really worked, in my opinion – at least, not as well as this one – partly because they overstate the persona. Their heroes have been fast-talking, larger-than-life, charismatic figures, the patter dying on their lips as rise turns, inevitably, to fall. They suffer from a sense of anti-climax, and the suggestion of a wagging finger.
American Made is slightly different. For one thing, Barry isn’t especially charismatic, nor a very good talker; if anything, he’s inarticulate, chuckling like an idiot when approached by a CIA agent calling himself Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) with an offer to take reconnaissance photos of Central American rebels. Barry is a pilot, first glimpsed in 1978 at the controls of a TWA flight; he messes with the pedals, shaking the plane and freaking out the sleeping passengers – just for a laugh, or because he’s irresponsible, or because he’s bored silly. Barry’s an adrenaline junkie, and a bit of a child; years later, after he’s become a millionaire, he likes to say goodbye before every flight across the Gulf of Mexico by cheerfully mooning his family (and the camera). By that time he’s become “the gringo who always delivers”, flying Kalashnikovs to the Contras in Nicaragua and cocaine from Pablo Escobar’s cartel in Colombia – though actually it’s the other way around.
Everything’s a joke in this gleeful, irreverent movie, and the biggest joke is the mess created by America’s misguided geopolitics (as explained in a short cartoon interlude). Reagan supports the Contras, hoping to topple the legitimate Commie government. Reagan also supports the war on drugs, coming down hard on Escobar and Co. But the Contras are actually a rabble, while Escobar is a powerful foe – so the guns being sent to Nicaragua end up instead in Colombia, in return for which Escobar supplies coke to the Contras which they then smuggle into the US; so the CIA indirectly ends up financing American drug dealers! American Made has a kind of wonderstruck quality, enveloped in a haze of amused disbelief at just how ridiculous the world is – and Barry himself is enveloped in a similar quality, holding on to his good-natured attitude (“Howdy amigos, I’m here on behalf of Uncle Sam!”) and Tom Cruise grin, zooming around on his planes and receiving insane amounts of money. The money fills shoeboxes and Samsonites in the family home. It bulges out of suitcases, and has to be buried in the backyard when they run out of space. It overfills the vault at the local bank, forcing them to build a whole other vault. The problems of having too much money – the magic of capitalism – are another of the film’s little jokes.
This is smart, propulsive, mostly irresistible stuff. One can quibble, of course. The role of Barry’s wife is one-dimensional, like most female roles nowadays. Director Doug Liman slightly overdoes the in-your-face cartoonishness, with some canted angles and overly garish colours. Some may also find the plot over-familiar – but there’s no wagging finger here, nor even really a rise-and-fall narrative. Barry is finally undone (as we know he must be eventually) by the same combination of dumb luck and government incompetence that made him rich in the first place, and takes it with the same equanimity.
Cruise is relaxed and endearing here, very much the in-control movie star; he’s been doing this for 35 years, he knows he’s good at it, and he carries the film without straining for rascally charm as e.g. Matthew McConaughey did in Gold. Even as the goings-on get increasingly frantic – then topple over into farcical – he anchors them in Barry’s air of bemusement and sheer joy in flying. American Made will please cynics looking for a takedown of the Reagan-Bush era, Narcos fans with a taste for all things Pablo, and unaffiliated slackers in the market for a goofy entertainment. Everybody wins.
DIRECTED BY Doug Liman
STARRING Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright
US 2017 115 mins