After successfully teaming up to battle aliens in Edge of Tomorrow (2014), director Doug Liman and star Tom Cruise return in a true story about an airline pilot who trades in his commercial wings in favour of CIA espionage, drug running and arms dealing.
Taking place in the 1980s, at the height of the cold war, Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is a thrill-seeking commercial airline pilot who makes a few extra dollars smuggling cigars from Cuba into the United States. When shady CIA smooth talker Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) gets wind of this, he sees an opportunity to coerce Seal into doing a spot of below-board, flyover spying on the communist threat in Central America; and Seal soon sees an opportunity to make more than just a few extra dollars to support his family.
As the film opens, we see the current Universal logo abruptly paused and replaced with the 1980s version, as A Fifth of Beethoven begins playing over it, setting the tone for the rest of the film. This is a true story told to entertain rather than to necessarily educate. Liman wants to tell this story in as stylish a way as possible, allowing the audience to sit back and be bathed in typical 80s excess, involving Pablo Escobar, kilos of cocaine, Contras, crates of weapons and enough money to make Gordon Gekko blush!
Yes, no sooner has Seal started flying for the CIA, taking airborne pictures of communist training camps, then he is introduced to Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and his friendly gang of Medallin cartel kingpins (which includes one, Pablo Escobar), who want Seal, on his way back from CIA duty, to drop off copious amounts of cocaine north of the border. Brimming with self-belief in his abilities as a pilot, and with the $2,000 per kilo eclipsing the financial contributions the CIA are offering him, he instantly agrees and the money begins pouring in.
Schafer turns a blind eye to Seal’s extra-curricular activities but in return he has Seal taking bigger and bigger risks, making exchanges with future dictator Manuel Noriega, delivering weapons to the Contras and even smuggling Contras themselves into the US. Eventually coming to the attention of multiple law enforcement agencies (largely due to the fact that he has amassed so much money that he had his own personal vault in the local bank!), Seal finds himself burned by the CIA. Now forced to work for the DEA and the White House, whilst still retaining his cartel connections; Seal is left juggling a volatile combination that proves impossible to keep stable forever.
Whereas many criticised his casting in this summer’s The Mummy, few can argue with Cruise’s casting here, as he channels his inner-Maverick, perfectly encapsulating Barry Seal and his dual lives, one as the anti-hero Gringo Who Always Delivers and the other as the devoted husband and father. And even when certain events take a dark turn (which doesn’t always suit the often comedic tone) Cruise’s relaxed charm and charisma are there to stop you getting too concerned or worried about how things are unfolding. Never one to shy away from doing his own stunts, Cruise is at the controls of every aircraft he flies and even on the peddles of a bike after being forced to land a plane in a suburban street!
Cruise is not alone in this film however and is surrounded by a solid cast; with Sarah Wright playing his loyal wife, Caleb Landry Jones playing her trashy brother and the likes of Jesse Plemons, Lola Kirke and Jayma Mays in smaller roles. Domhnall Gleeson deserves special mention as he epitomises the deceitful, driven, yet assuredly charming CIA operative you would imagine operating around the time of Ronald Reagan and the Iran-Contra scandal.
And for anyone wanting a brief (and slightly biased) history lesson on the general events surrounding this film, allow me to point you in the direction of where 90% of my knowledge came from prior to seeing this film…
When directing this, Doug Liman has planted his feet (and camera) firmly in the 80s, splicing animation exposition along with genuine footage from the times directly into a film that often looks and feels as though it could have come out immediately after the events it portrays. Of course when telling a ‘true story’ involving the CIA, the Medallin cartel et al. it is impossible to know which parts of it were faithful retellings, which parts were embellished and which parts were completely fictionalised; however, if even 20% of the events depicted actually happened then that is still enough to make you laugh out loud in disbelief!
In summary: Another successful team up between Liman and Cruise, telling a stylish story that chooses excess and entertainment over emotions and hard-hitting realism. Air America meets The Wolf of Wall Street!
Thanks for reading, and until next time…