In The Infiltrator, Michael Paré has a vivid cameo as drugrunner/informant/shady character Barry Seal, delivering a speech about Ronnie and Nancy and then making a spectacular (if fictionalised) exit which counts as a spoiler for this full-on biopic. I’d completely forgotten there was a cable TV version of the story in 1991, with Dennis Hopper as Seal and Adrienne Barbeau as his long-suffering wife, though this transmutation of the ‘based on a true story’ saga into a Tom Cruise star vehicle feels closer in tone to the Vietnam-set Air America – one of Seal’s crew could easily be the Mel Gibson character from that a few years on. Directed by Doug Liman and scripted by Gary Spinelli of the Dolph Lundgren dtDVD actioner Stash House, American Made fits into a run of films – The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, Margin Call, The Big Short, Blow – about unethical buccaneers who seemed to have a hell of a time taking part in corrupt activities which had horrendous fall-out for a lot of folks who don’t get much of a look-in in the breezy, tabloidy bio-dramas.
All these films are at least as concerned with indicting the shady dealings or blind-eye-turnings of successive governments as examining the lifestyles of the rich and unscrupulous, which gives them an entertainingly cynical edge. As usual, we get news clips of Reagan sternly putting down the Sandinistas (while painting a target on Barry’s back) and Nancy making her ‘just say no’ speech, but there’s also a crucial offscreen role for Bill Clinton as an enabler of all this murk – getting Seal let off lightly when multiple agencies have converged to pin many many racketeering charges on him – and a glimpse of young George W. Bush (Connor Trinneer) at a hearing. The frame is that Barry records confessions on video cassettes while awaiting cartel hit men and getting nervy every time he puts a key in his ignition, narrating his careening path from overworked airline pilot with a sideline in smuggling Cuban cigars to CIA asset working as a drug-runner for the Medellin Cartel as part of the complicated mess that became the Iran-Contra affair, handing payoffs to Noriega in Panama, delivering AK-47s to Contras in Nicaragua, filling up the banks of a small Arkansas town with bags and bags of cash and hosting a training ground for useless anti-communist counter-insurgents near the airfield he has been set up with. His point man is ‘Schafer’ (Domnhall Gleeson), who airily nudges him from one unethical situation to the next – but he does get genuinely chummy with Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) – who seems to be the character Benjamin Bratt played in The Infiltrator – and his murdery pal Pablo Escobar. Late in the day, Oliver North (Robert Farrior) shows up, to make things worse for everyone.
One reason The Mummy nosedived was that for all his movie star status Tom Cruise isn’t very good at playing heroes – his career is built on a kind of feckless, shameless charm, so he’s much better here as essentially a smarmy asshole whose cut-ups have a comic edge (after crashing a plane and dusting himself with cocaine he bribes kids to buy a child-sized push-bike and pedals to freedom through a suburb) and who may infuriate his wife (Sarah Wright – because Cruise the producer won’t let himself get upstaged by Jennifer Lawrence or Margot Robbie like the male leads in those other Wolfy Hustle films did) but isn’t shown being unfaithful to her or even partaking of the piles of ‘product’ left lying around by the jolly drug exporters. A few moments depict him as a doting Dad, though one who can relocate the whole family to another state in the middle of the night ahead of cops with a search warrant even if it’s the day of his son’s school play. In an old-fashioned bit of plotting, the first intimations of Seal’s downfall come thanks to a deadbeat relative – Caleb Landry Jones being splendidly worthless as a useless, whining, vindictive moron brother-in-law – rather than his own excesses or failings. Cruise, as has often been shown, loves playing pilots – his aviator shades are prized by a goonish contra who steals them, and there are the expected daredevil aerial stunts. Here, it’s almost as if Barry is mainly keen on getting into the air and having a high time without drugs, money or women … and he’s brought down by all the crooks he has to deal with on all sides of the law.