Cruise flies high in likeable drug drama
- American Made (15A, 115mins) ★★★
- Logan Lucky (12A, 119mins) ★★★
Is glib history better than no history at all? That's the dilemma presented by American Made, a bright, breezy and undeniably entertaining thriller set in the mid-1980s, when Reagan's America was in its hubristic pomp. Doug Liman's film is based on the story of Barry Seal, an airline pilot who branched out into drug-smuggling for the Medellin cartel and ended up as a CIA mole.
Barry (Tom Cruise) is earning his crust as a TWA pilot when he's approached by a clean-cut smiling, young man called Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), who makes him an intriguing offer. Would he fancy flying small aircraft over Central America taking surveillance photos of the Sandanistas and other left-wing rebel groups the Reagan administration considers unpalatable? Barry, who's clearly an adrenaline junkie, jumps at the offer, despite the fact he's married and a father. Surveillance work soon turns to gun-running to the Contra militias in Nicaragua, where a chance meeting with two gents called Ochoa and Escobar leads to even riskier work.
According to American Made, the Medellin gang make Barry an offer he can't refuse, and soon he's swooping in and out of Nicaragua, his plane packed with guns and cocaine. The CIA may or may not be aware of all this and have set him up in a remote Arkansas town that will become a training camp for the Contras. Liman's film makes light of all this dense plotting and concentrates mostly on Barry's hair-raising escapes and thrilling air chases with DEA planes.
Reagan's simple-minded meddlings in Central America, the barbarity of the Medellin gang, the misery their product caused are all treated as a bit of a laugh by a film that's high on charm but perilously low on historical overview, or morality. I ended up liking old Barry, but really, was I supposed to?
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A few years back, Steven Soderbergh announced he was retiring from movie-making. Thankfully, he was either in a bad mood or joking because now he's back with a typically satisfying (and typically pedantic) heist thriller. A kind of hillbilly version of Ocean's Eleven, Logan Lucky is set in the backwoods of West Virginia, where former college football star Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) is struggling to make ends meet.
He's working at a local mine when he's fired without reason. His rent is due and his brassy ex-wife Bobbie Jo (an amusingly cast Katie Holmes) is about to move to another state with their daughter, Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie). Jimmy needs money fast - then he has an idea. During his mining stint, he noticed that a nearby Indy racing track uses a system of pneumatic pipes to transport cash to its vaults. If this could be stealthily infiltrated, the rewards could be huge.
Jimmy's lugubrious brother, Clyde (the invariably brilliant Adam Driver), who tends bar and lost an arm in Iraq, thinks the Logan family is cursed. But Jimmy's having none of that and involves Clyde, their younger sister Mellie (Riley Keough) and a noted safe-cracker called Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) in his scheme. Joe's in jail and a lesser criminal mastermind might consider that a problem, but Jimmy reckons he can turn even this impediment to his advantage by smuggling Joe in and out, thereby creating a pretty handy alibi.
What could go wrong? Rather a lot and the most enjoyable parts of. Soderbergh's smartly written film involve the negotiations and shared worries of the amateurish but thoroughly lovable gang. Steven Soderbergh is a self-confessed movie nerd and loves the process of cinematic storytelling: Lucky Logan gets bogged down for a time in the mechanics of the heist, but is thoroughly enjoyable and full of good performances, not least from Brian Gleeson, who plays Joe Bang's not especially clever brother.
- Paul Whitington