Review – Be Sure to Look for the Union Label… (“American Made”)

Tom Cruise is back and this time NOT as some ruthless ex-military guy or a top-secret CIA agent or even as a (God help us) newly-made mummy! No, this time around he’s a family man with a drop-dead gorgeous wife, some nice kids, and pretty sweet job. Oh, the job? Running guns for the CIA and drugs for a Colombian cartel! Oh, and one more thing, it’s all based on a true story.

Shot in part like an old 1980’s ABC-TV movie-of-the-week, this is a fast-paced look at one man who wanted to obtain the American Dream at any cost… and lived to regret it.  Bored TWA airline pilot Barry Seal (Cruise) makes a few extra bucks on the side smuggling in illegal Cuban cigars, when he’s recruited by CIA special agent Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson). It’s starts off small with Barry flying clandestine reconnaissance missions over Central America and taking pictures of covert Russian activities there. But all that weekly flying attracts the attention of the local cocaine cartel boys down there.

The early Mendellin Cartel is comprised of three up-and-coming guys: Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia), Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda), and soon-to-be dictator, Manuel Noriega. Once they capture Barry, they make him an offer he can’t refuse: as long as he’s flying into Central America to take pictures, why not fly out with their cocaine? And he’ll also get paid major $$$ too boot! Hey, why not?!

Later the CIA ups the ante and wants Barry to run guns to the Nicaraguan Contras in Honduras, forcing Barry to move to Mina, Arkansas and getting his own private airplane hanger and land. As the guns go out, Ochoa and Escobar up their game as well, having Barry deliver more and more of their product. So much so, that Barry has to hire his own ‘air force’ to help him out. Things get crazy as the CIA/Barry imports the inept Contras here and trains them, while Barry and his team are making SO much drug money they can’t spend it all and don’t what to do with it.

Ah, but all good things have to end someday, right? And that day is when Lucy, (Sarah Wright), Barry’s hot wife gets a visitor. In walks J.B. (Caleb Landry Jones), her freeloading and shiftless loser hick brother. This numbskull stealing from Barry is just the tip of the iceberg, as the DEA is closing in on Barry’s drug smuggling operations and, worse yet, Ochoa is none-to-happy that his shipments aren’t going out as planned. Barry’s life unravels as a series of unfortunate events befalls him and he’s busted by the DEA, ATF, FBI, and the local police… all at the same time!

Barry, narrating his adventures on VHS throughout the movie, has a winning smile, a warm personality, and was purely in it for the money and adventure. However, in the end, it didn’t turn out very well for him. Even though this story is Hollywood-ized for the screen (Barry actually had three wives, was a jerk, and weighed 300 lbs.), this movie, very loosely adapted by Gary Spinelli from the book, Smuggler’s End: The Life and Death of Barry Seal, is unapologetically fun to watch. This is Spinelli’s second only screenplay and it’s filled with real dialogue and language, instead of the clap-trap you get with most bio-pic’s. (see review below)

Even given the fact that the CIA/USA did some pretty shady stuff back in the 80’s, the serious action is tinged with a great deal of humor, thanks to director Doug Limon’s (Jumper, Edge of Tomorrow) unique style of filmmaking. He uses a mash-up of documentary-style, old-school VHS, and 2017 HD camera shooting, all blended together to give you a quirky off-balance sense. Impressive again are the flying sequences, where minimal CGI effects were used and real planes were, some with tragic results. Several crashes occurred on the set while filming this movie, which gives makes you wonder about using more CGI and less practical effects.

Anyway, it’s nice to see Cruise finally playing someone who isn’t shooting people, punching another in the face, leaping off a building, running at break-neck speed, or turning into some 2000-year-old wacky creature. He’s just your average Joe that gets in way, way, over his head and tries to fix it before his life spirals completely out of control. Wright is impossibly cute as his long-suffering wife and Gleeson does his usual top-notch acting job. Okay, so it’s not exactly “based on a true story”, but it’s a fun two hours to waste watching Cruise NOT turn into a mummy.                              

 Air America (1990)

There’s a line in the movie where naive Robert Downey, Jr looks at world-weary Mel Gibson and says,”What am I doing here?” To which, Gibson answers back, “Exactly! What ARE we doing here?!” That pretty much sums up this deadly dull movie that looks at crazy American pilots in 1969 Laos secretly running food, medicine, and guns to the downtrodden South Vietnamese for the CIA.

Based on “true events” and stories by the actual pilots themselves, it’s 1969 and the Vietnam War is in full swing. Mel Gibson plays Gene Ryack, a cynical and eccentric pilot who leads an unorthodox cache of other crazy U.S. pilots in a secret off-the-map CIA airbase in Laos. Although his daily mission is to deliver food, medicine and other necessaries to the local starving people in the jungles, he also has a hidden agenda of his own (as well as the others). Gene buys and sells black market weapons on the side so he can afford to quit his job there.

Entering into this squad of degenerates is a young hot-shot and idealistic pilot named Billy Covington (Downey, Jr.), whose U.S. pilot license was revoked due to. . questionable flying practices, shall we say? Anywho, he’s teamed up with Gene and quickly learns that everything he’s been told about Laos is not quite accurate. The pilots are strung-out, corruption is rampant, and the ‘band-of-brothers’ camaraderie there begins and ends at the local bar. But that’s not the worst part.

In charge of the whole operation are Major Lemond (Ken Jenkins) and Rob Diehl (David Marshal Grant), both CIA honchos of Air America who, one day, escort a nosy fact-finding Senator (Lane Smith) around Laos, carefully hiding him from the secret base. The Senator hooks up with Vietnamese General Lu Soong (Burt Kwouk), who is in fact, the local cocaine and heroin drug cartel warlord! While the Senator is losing patience with Lemond and Diehl and demanding to know who is smuggling drugs, Bill and Gene are having adventures of their own, like being shot down and then captured by a rural tribe.

Disillusioned with the U.S. actions in Laos, Gene convinces Billy to quit his job with Air America, but Billy wants to get even with General Soong by blowing up his heroin facility. Kaboom! Lemond and Diehl, who are in cahoots with General Soong, set up Billy and Gene for a fall, claiming THEY are the ring leaders behind the drug trafficking. As the Senator watches, Billy is hunted down by General Soong’s men and local rebels, but Gene comes to the rescue. In the end, the Senator recognizes the set up for what it was, and he threatens to reveal Lemond and Diehl’s operation to Washington.

The screenplay was based on Christopher Robbins book (he also co-wrote the script with John Eskow & Richard Rush), and he claims everything that happened was true. Nevertheless, the movie, directed by Roger Spottiswoode (48hrs, Tomorrow Never Dies), just lays there and never goes anywhere. Billed as a comedy and starring Gibson and Downey, Jr. you’d think there would be SOME humor there, right? True, there is the occasional witty ad-libbed banter between the two, but the film as a whole is a boring washout with listless performances, dull dialogue, and ho-hum action.

The filming was done in Thailand and Downey, Jr despised being there, claiming that he would never, ever go back there again! So why did he even DO the picture in the first place? Two reasons: he really needed the money at the time AND he had the chance to work next to Mel Gibson. Yeah, I guess that works.


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