by Vicky Roach, News Corp Australia Network
THE expression "he flies by the seat of his pants" could have been coined especially for TWA pilot-turned-drug runner Barry Seal (Tom Cruise).
Before being recruited by the CIA, Seal gets his thrills by startling cabins-full of sleeping passengers with unexpected mid-flight "turbulence".
Seal's life takes an unexpected turn when special agent Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) approaches him in an airport lounge with an extraordinary proposition.
The authorities will turn a blind eye to Seal's small-scale smuggling sideline in Cuban cigars if he agrees to undertake some reconnaissance work for the agency.
The gleaming new jet Seal is to pilot pretty much clinches the deal.
Based on real events, American Made is set in the late 1970s and early '80s.
When the film opens, Jimmy Carter is in the White House. Central America is a hot bed of political activity. The Cold War is in full swing.
Liberated from his life on autopilot, Seal flies fast and low over insurgent training camps taking photographs and sometimes a stray bullet.
Before heading home to his unsuspecting wife (Sarah Wright), he switches back into his old TWA pilot's uniform.
While director Doug Liman (Mr and Mrs Smith, The Bourne Identity) and screenwriter Gary Spinelli have presumably taken some creative license with the story, which unfolds at a suitably cracking pace, many of the key plot points are simply too far-fetched to have been invented.
Seal's early relationship with Pablo Escobar and other members of the Medellin cocaine cartel, for example.
And his next, interlinked iteration - running US Government-supplied arms to ill-organised Nicaraguan Contras under the presidency of Ronald Regan (guns that ultimately find their way back to Escobar).
Even more outlandish, perhaps, is the private fiefdom Seal establishes in the small town of Mena, Arkansas, after his enforced relocation from Baton Rouge to avoid prosecution from the DEA.
And the training camp for battle-shy Contras the CIA establishes on his property.
Some of the more incredible references in American Made - such as the Iran-Contra affair - are a matter of public record.
Others can be cross-checked against Netflix's stylistically similar TV series Narcos.
Both projects are rooted in a very particular place and time.
Liman, who has already established himself as an action-savvy filmmaker, handles the '80s tonal shift with deft assurance.
And he is well-served by Cruise, who delivers his best performance in some time in the lead role.
Pop culture associations with the Hollywood A-lister's Top Gun (1986) character don't hurt a bit.
Cruise is much more interesting to watch in the role of Seal, a self-serving but charismatic rogue, than he is in his smooth, invincible Mission: Impossible action-man persona.
A ripping yarn with a keen, satirical edge
American Made opens on tomorrow.
Stars: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright.
Director: Doug Liman
Rating: MA 15+
Verdict: 3.5 stars