‘American Made’ barely scratches surface of outrageous tale

Spend even five minutes on social media, and you’ll walk away convinced the world is nuttier than it’s ever been.

But the planet’s always been cuckoo. It’s just that we’re only now finding out about some of the really wild stuff from years past.

“Argo.” “The Wolf of Wall Street.” “Catch Me If You Can.” “War Dogs.” You wouldn’t believe any of those movies were based on true stories if there weren’t plenty of documentation to back them up.

To that list, you can add “American Made,” the entertaining but lightweight story of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), who went from being a TWA pilot flying to Bakersfield and Baton Rouge to smuggling guns for the CIA and drugs for Pablo Escobar and ultimately became a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal.

In 1978, Seal was making a few dollars on the side by illegally transporting Cuban cigars into the U.S. Recognizing his potential, CIA operative Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) sets Barry up with a fake company, Independent Aviation Consultants — IAC instead of CIA — and outfits him with a high-tech spy plane to take surveillance photos of Central American insurgents. Before long, Barry’s delivering cash to Panama’s Manuel Noriega in exchange for intelligence.

Garnering a reputation as “the gringo who always delivers,” he’s offered $2,000 a kilo to fly cocaine into the U.S. for Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia) and the Medellin Cartel. Staring at the cartel’s perilously short runway and the wreckage of planes in the trees at the end of it, he shrugs and nevertheless crams 300 kilos on board.

After numerous such flights, Barry’s side business becomes too hot with the DEA. So Schafer sets Barry up with his own airport and the surrounding 2,000 acres in tiny Mena, Arkansas, from which he smuggles AK-47s to the Contras in Nicaragua, then actual Contras into Arkansas to train on his land.

Soon, the money is coming in faster than Barry can launder it. His wife (Sarah Wright Olsen) can’t find any of her shoes because so many of their boxes are filled with cash. When the dog digs up one of the bags Barry’s buried, leaving bills blowing around in the backyard, he can’t even be bothered to pick them up till morning.

If all of this sounds like the wild romp it should be, I’m clearly overselling it.

Influenced by the success of “Argo,” relatively unknown screenwriter Gary Spinelli began researching other covert scandals of the era, but he lacks the skill of that film’s Oscar-winning writer Chris Terrio. Director Doug Liman, reuniting with Cruise after “Edge of Tomorrow,” fares better by adding some visual humor to the mix.

But “American Made” merely scratches the surface of the sheer lunacy of Barry’s story. There’s enough weirdness going on in Mena — a newcomer depositing suitcases full of cash into the small town’s many banks; Porsches and Cadillacs appearing among the locals’ pickups; actual Nicaraguan rebels receiving military training in rural Arkansas — to fill a season of a “Fargo”-style TV series. Most of this, though, is merely glossed over.

Still, it’s nice to see Cruise entering into another risky business and once again performing reckless maneuvers in the sky.

This summer’s “The Mummy” aside, playing against type usually turns out well for Cruise, and it does here, as well. Sure, his drug- and gun-running is contributing to the deaths of untold numbers of people, but all he has to do is flash that megawatt smile and, for the most part, all is forgiven.

“American Made” is a fun watch, and you’ll no doubt leave the theater shaking your head.

Both at Barry’s antics and at the awards-caliber movie “American Made” could have been.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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