In 1983 Tom Cruise launched himself into stardom with his first leading role as Joel Goodson (no symbolism here, eh?) in Risky Business. Risky Business is the iconic story of a promising kid who through a series of serendipitous events goes from clean cut college applicant to wildly successful pimp in the course of a long weekend while his parents are away. To this day people debate whether it was a social commentary, a smart offshoot of the Animal House genre, a drama with comedic elements or a black comedy. In many ways it is really a cynical tragedy of the ease with which innocence can be corrupted.
But there is no debate about the fact this movie was the start of Cruise's virtually unbroken line of blockbuster hits – Top Gun, Rain Man, A Few Good Men, The Firm, Interview With a Vampire, the Mission Impossible franchise, Jerry Maguire, Minority Report, Jack Reacher, Edge of Tomorrow all profit hugely from that boyish winsome smile, comic timing, bursting energy, and obvious enthusiasm for his characters. His willingness to perform his own stunts is legendary and he must have hired Dorian Gray's painter because at 55 he doesn't look much older than he did as Joel sliding across his parents' marble floor lipsyncing to Bob Seeger's "Old Time Rock and Roll" in his break out performance.
Now comes American Made, a fitting title for a movie starring a man whose acting career is the epitome of the American dream. In Risky Business Joel becomes a manipulative self-styled entrepreneur who takes immoral advantage of the free enterprise system. In American Made, the real life Barry Seal, drug and gun smuggler, CIA courier and informant echoes in real life everything extreme about the fictional Joel's reel life in Risky Business. I can't help but think of American Made as the sequel to Risky Business. In addition, the most significant events depicted in American Made took place in the early '80's – coincidentally the same time frame in which Joel was setting up his one night brothel. I love the poetic symmetry of Cruise in both of those roles hovering about the same time period. And it can be neither a coincidence nor an unintentional homage which makes sunglasses a repeated motiff of Barry's image in American Made when the most iconic portrait of Joel from Risky Business is the poster which features Cruise as Joel peering slyly over a pair of sunglasses. It is an in joke for anyone who has seen both movies.
American Made is the biography, told in self-made video tapes of Barry Seal. Tom Cruise quipped that Barry Seal reminded him of a Mark Twain character – pilot, devoted family man, faithful husband, good father, who also happens to be a drug smuggler, and CIA courier. At the start of the movie Barry flies for TWA but sidelines as a smuggler of Cuban cigars. His skill at this is notices by one Monty Schafer (Domhnall "Bill Weasley" Gleeson) of the CIA.
Monty hires Barry to take photos over South America, then to be a courier between the CIA and General Noriega in Panama. Dissatisfied with the pay he is getting from the government Barry accepts an offer from the Medellin Cartel to fly cocaine, which side business is winked at by his government handlers. Assuming even half of the crazy stuff that is conveyed in the movie is true, Barry makes so much money he literally can not find enough places to store it. There is only so much laundering he can do in the small town of Mena, Arkansas where he has been put up by Monty and wisely tries not to be too flamboyant in his living habits. Joel would have been delighted.
The director, Doug Liman, chose an interesting style with which to film. The Universal logo "glitches" from the 21st century high definition we are now used to seeing to the 1970's version, making use of a random optical texture technique naturally created in old film stock by the grains which would occasionally appear in film and scratch it. He also uses the poor visual quality of the grainy old taped video to realistically show the cheap tapes on which Barry documented his exploits. This film quality effect sucks us into the time period as readily as the dated hair styles and leather jackets.
This is one of those rare occasions where the trailer gives nothing away. I will say this – if you liked the trailer for American Made, you'll like the movie because the movie is just more of what you see in the trailer. The language is raw, there are some adult scenes of marital intimacy, and violence is accurately portrayed.
There is a motto I have told our kids. I hope it has sunk in over the years – some money is just too expensive to get. If this IS Joel from Risky Business all grown up then he has obviously learned nothing from the danger and betrayal he experienced. But perhaps, like the gambler who lives not for the win, but for that moment when the coin flip is in the air and the possibilities APPEAR endless, Barry did what he did for the thrill of it. The way he was portrayed in the movie, Barry certainly didn't seem to need, want or respect the vast amounts of cash he was paid. The mind blowing quantities of ill gotten bills seemed to be more of an inconvenience than a dream fulfilled.
American Made is fascinating in the same way that is watching an unavoidable train wreck in progress. The entire time I was writing this review I couldn't get Glenn Frey's prescient and period perfect 1984 song out of my head, especially the lines:
I'm sorry it went down like this,
Someone had to lose,
It's the nature of the business,
It's the….Smuggler's Blues.
Alas Joel. Alas Barry.