Early in the crackling little cocaine-cowboy flick “American Made,” you can see the boredom settle over pilot Barry Seal during a pre-flight check. Played by Tom Cruise, Seal happens to have this moment of professional ennui in the cockpit of a TWA airliner circa 1980, not long after the CIA has approached him about a career change. You may have felt the same at some point. Maybe you should start that bakery, or write that novel, or tutor music. Seal — a real dude as regular readers of the Arkansas Times know, if liberally fictionalized in this film — decided he was ready to fly small-plane surveillance missions over Central American rebel groups, which soon led to his becoming a prolific smuggler of guns and cocaine between Nicaragua, Colombia and, of all flipping places, Mena (Polk County).
Working from Gary Spinelli’s script, director Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity” and another Cruise action vehicle, “Edge of Tomorrow”) spins Seal’s biopic as a light-footed Reagan-era romp, peppered with archival TV clips and cartoony animations. Cruise — who at 55 still can convince you he’s in his 30s — gives us a Barry Seal who’s part good ol’ boy, part Duke of Hazzard, part aw-shucks criminal. We never see him harm another person or fire a gun; at one point, having been robbed of his boots and sunglasses by the Sandinistas to whom he’s delivering guns, he returns with a stack of skin mags and a box of booze to make peace, brandishing a baseball bat for protection. He’s a likeable guy, this Barry! He’s also making so much filthy hard cash that he can’t even find space to store it around his house, in his barn, in Mena’s banks. And this is a guy whom the CIA gifted an airstrip and a hangar from which to run his operation.
The location was so instrumental to the plot, an earlier version of the script was simply titled “Mena.” Now with a population of nearly 6,000, the town wasn’t quite half as big in the early ’80s of the film. Seal, his wife, Lucy (a charming Sarah Wright), and their kids pull into town with their earthly belongings stacked on their station wagon, and you can see their dread. Passing empty downtown storefronts and a sheriff’s department in a house trailer, Seal chirps that the town has barbecue and lots of charm.
The Medellín cartel rolls a bit bigger. On an otherwise normal run to Colombia, Seal is recruited (or maybe more accurately, abducted) by Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía) and Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and made an offer he couldn’t really refuse. Soon, he’s dropping bales of coke from the floor of his plane to swampy rednecks in Louisiana, making $2,000 a kilo for his troubles. (The real-life Seal apparently netted something like $500,000 for a good flight.) He expands his business and, with the help of a CIA contact named Shafer (Domnhall Gleeson, playing a composite character), knows all the DEA and FBI surveillance areas to avoid.
Ferrying coke and guns between U.S. government agencies, Central American guerillas, a Colombian drug cartel and the country folk of the American South may be the greatest display of hubris in the history of hustle. And, as you’d expect, the ride could last only so long. But what Liman’s banking on — and where he succeeds, just as surely as a daredevil pilot — is a trueish-crime story that moves so quickly and with such infectious delirium that you get swept up in the telling just as surely as Seal does. “American Made” amounts to a surprisingly swift and transportative dark comedy, one in which you’re already up to your neck in drugs and money and adventure before you stop to realize what a wonderfully terrible idea it all was.