Universal Pictures 1 hour 55 minutes R Reviewed September 29, 2017
Drug smuggling is serious business in this film, but it’s done with a smirk and a smile. There are some cool comedic moments which are unexpected in a Tom Cruise movie. The film is based on Barry Seal, a commercial pilot turned drug and gun delivery service that resulted in an incredible intersection of the CIA, FBI, DEA and the Colombian Drug Cartel. That led up to the politically charged Iran Contra Investigation of the 1980’s during the Reagan presidency.
Director Liman and Tom Cruise worked together previously on the Sci-Fi film, Edge of tomorrow. Tom Cruise, as Seal, is on the screen every minute and he does all his own flying. Liman, a pilot in his own right, plants a camera behind Cruise and outside the cockpit to make you feel like you, too, are with him on this wild ride. His stunt flying includes taking off and landing on dangerously short dirt runways in Colombia, clipping trees and landing in the dark of night with only one truck’s headlights as a guide.
Not the usual Tom Cruise action flick, we think his landing in a residential neighborhood, covered in cocaine powder, paying off kids in cash so he can take their bike to getaway was the comedic highpoint of the movie.
Seal was caught smuggling Cuban cigars while working for TWA, and to avoid jail, he agrees to work for the CIA. Agent Monte Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson, The Revenant, Ex Machina) offers to cut him some slack if he’ll secretly work for the government. Gleeson is rye, sarcastic, and comes across as a likable handler. He needs Seal and Seal needs him. The pilot runs on adrenalin and seizes the opportunity for adventure. Cruise makes Seal exciting.
When Liman read the script written by Gary Spinelli, the director realized his own father, prominent lawyer, Arthur L. Liman, did the questioning during the real Iran Contra investigation. And Liman remembers his Dad laughing at some of the ludicrous details he helped uncover about Seal and his exploits during questioning of historic figures including Oliver North.
Both Liman and Cruise saw that humor in Seal’s operations and project it well. His squirming out of life threatening situations is hilarious. It’s the story of someone who worked for the U.S. government providing guns for the rebels to fight Communism during the Cold War and, at the same time, worked for Pablo Escobar, the head of the huge drug cartel. The pilot was working both sides and making more money than he knew what to do with. Liman has Cruise use a primitive camera set up to do the kind of a selfie available at that time to document what he is up to. It makes Seal even more human and humorous.
Liman portrays what Seal had to deal with to survive, from talking his way out of dangerous situations, getting shot at, to the difficulty of hiding all that cash. It’s especially funny when he has to go on the lamb with his wife, Lucy, (Sarah Wright, Marry Me TV, Walk of Shame) and their kids and end up in a small rural Arkansas town. Lucy starts out as his Barbie Doll, trophy wife and ends up being his co pilot in crime. Wright has some great takes. When Seals asks her “Do you trust me?” She shouts, “NO!”
The scenes where Seal digs to bury sacks of cash and frustrated, finds too many bags already buried there is as funny as when he opens cabinets stashed with cash in suitcases that spill out knocking him over. Then seeing the number of banks they had to open just for his fortune in that tiny town they were living in is well shot. It’s an amusing and effective series of cuts.
Cruise gets to play the ballsy pilot whose exploits are very entertaining. Seal was flying high and riding high. He was a hustler who enjoyed delivering the goods when no one else could. He was playing both sides against the middle. Some may take exception to the film taking a position against Reagan’s administration for orchestrating the Iran Contra deals. Liman, himself, describes the film as how Seal screwed the White House.
Seal got away with more than anyone would in this present political climate and would never be able to fly as he did with today’s GPS and Drone technology. We think the film gets somewhat muddled towards the end of the film when the government and the drug lords start closing in and his fate is sealed. The progression of Seal’s activity is well structured in the first three quarters of the film. But after that, it’s as hard to follow and confusing as the activites were during that time period. That said, it’s still worth buckling up and letting Cruise take you on this entertaining flight.