"American Made" is a smart, nervy film, a very modern entertainment made with energy, style and a fine sense of humor that keeps us amused until gradually, almost imperceptibly, the laughter starts to stick in our throats.
As such it's par for the course for Doug Liman, a filmmaker with a gift for subverting Hollywood norms. Though moviegoers might not recognize his name, he's directed such blockbusters as "The Bourne Identity" and "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" and he's got a way of making genre smarter than it has a right to be.
Here he's helped by a nifty script written by Gary Spinelli about the rise and fall of unapologetic rogue Barry Seal that was good enough to be sold to Imagine Entertainment and Universal for a reported $1 million.
And of course there's high-wattage star Tom Cruise, who previously worked with Liman on the underrated "Edge of Tomorrow" and shows how and why he can still dominate the screen when he takes on roles that play to his strengths.
Though Seal was a real person, the events of "American Made" are inspired by but not limited to what actually happened in his chaotic life, which is why Liman himself calls the film "a fun lie based on a true story."
As reflected in the title, what likely attracted Liman and company to Seal's story was the chance to marry a terrifically engaging character to a narrative that gradually comes to terms with the darker side of the American dream, with the price that individuals and nations pay for coloring outside the lines.
When we first meet Seal in 1978 he's a pilot for TWA and bored, bored, bored, so much so that he's shown faking turbulence on one of his flights just to shake up his sleeping passengers.
Happily married to Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen, nicely convincing as a former KFC employee) and with his family growing, Seal is always looking for ways to make a few extra dollars, including smuggling in Cuban cigars.
This illegal bit of entrepreneurship brings Seal to the notice of smooth-talking CIA operative Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleason, letter-perfect as always).
"We're building nations, this is America at its finest," Schafer says as if he believes it, which he may well. "We could use someone like you."
Quicker than you can say "covert activity," Schafer has hooked Seal up with "the fastest two-engine plane on the planet," and given him his assignment: fly to Central America and photograph left-wing anti-government rebel encampments in El Salvador and Honduras. Seal asks if the assignment is even legal. "Just don't get caught" is the non-reassuring answer.
It's roughly at this point that "American Made" takes the first of an increasing number of flash forwards to 1985, with Seal recording a series of clandestine video diaries expressing the regrets he didn't allow himself to feel when times were flush.
While the work is surely exciting, the CIA doesn't pay the way TWA used to. But opportunity strikes for the opportunist, and when Seal's activities come to the attention of a bunch of guys in Colombia, things change.
The Colombians, fronted by Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda), are, as it turns out, the key players in what became the Medellin drug cartel, and almost before he knows it Seal is using his return trips to the U.S. to ferry cocaine for the determined Colombians.
No one, however, said drug smuggling was going to be easy, and one of the consequences is an amusing middle-of-the-night family move to the tiny hamlet of Mena, Ark., where Seal amasses so much cash that the film mocks all his attempts to hide it away.
Though these events could be played straight, as powered by Cruise enjoying himself in a full-throttle performance, "American Made" has demented black comedy very much on its mind.
Things get even crazier when the left-wing Sandinistas come to power in Nicaragua. The U.S. turns to the CIA to take them out, and the CIA turns to Seal, the man Ochoa calls "the crazy gringo who always delivers."
But as the situation gradually morphs into the much more serious Iran/Contra affair, what started as genial amorality turns darker bit by bit by bit, both for Seal and the film that details his situation. There is, as it turns out, no free lunch for those who tie their lives to the CIA, not even close.
Rating: R, for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Playing: In general release