A film review of 1988’s “Cocktail”
by Rebecca Ford
Brian Flanagan is—for lack of a better word—a badass. Whether throwing liquor bottles over his shoulder, lip-synching to his favorite 80’s rock song or reciting poetry in a dubious Irish accent on top of a bar, this man has somehow epitomized cool.
And because of this, “Cocktail” also succeeds in being very, very cool—in a 1988-sort of way. The music, fashion and sin-infested scenes make this film a whirlwind of ridiculous entertainment.
From the neon blue lettering of the opening credits to the dramatic beats of Starship’s “Wild Again,” the first moments of “Cocktail” make it very clear that this movie is not a fine wine, embedded with subtleties of meaning, but more like the concoctions the main characters mix—light, fun and very satisfying for the moment. Sure, there could be a “what was I thinking?” moment the next morning, as you hold your head in pain, but for those couple of hours in front of the screen, “Cocktail” is pure bliss.
Flanagan (Tom Cruise), newly released from the Army, moves to New York to “make it big.” He thinks he is destined for greatness, to make millions. But he is turned down by company after company because of his lack of higher education, and not even the Tom Cruise grin can change the minds of the Wall Street elite. So, Flanagan does what most down ‘n out dreamers do: he gets a job at a bar.
He is at first a terrible bartender as proven with a nice montage of screw-ups, but with the help of his mentor, veteran bartender Doug Coughlin (Australian Bryan Brown), our hero soon becomes one of the best flair bartenders in town. Nevermind that it takes him about five minutes to make one drink (and why does he only make one drink at a time?)—at least he looks good doing it. For the flair bartending tricks in the film, Cruise and Brown were trained by J.B. Bandy, who was a T.G.I. Friday’s World Bartender Champion.
Flanagan attempts to take business classes during the day, but soon the pressure of work becomes too much, and he accepts life as full-time bartender, accumulating advice in the form of “Coughlin’s Laws” from his boss. (Examples range from “Never tell tales about a woman. No matter how far away she is, she’ll always hear you.” to “Bury the dead, they stink up the place.”)
Women come and go, but Flanagan and Coughlin are the strongest of onscreen duos. They’re back-and-forth ego battle makes for some pretty decent tension, and since every hero needs a nemesis, Coughlin fills out that role with ease. Brown is adequate in finding a balance between being a jerk and a friend, and has some of the best lines in the film.
For a while, bartending looks like a pretty sweet gig: adoring fans, an endless supply of women and all the alcohol you can drink. Yet, the dark underbelly of the business is also exposed: the manipulating coworkers, the suffocating hours and the gritty truth that really it’s all about the money.
And that mess is exactly why Flanagan wants to get out from behind the bar, no matter how intoxicating this lifestyle may be. Flanagan still hopes to make it big by opening his own franchise of bars called “Cocktails and Dreams.” Says Coughlin of his protégé, “Flanagan is a believer. He always will be.”
That’s precisely what makes Flanagan such a likable hero—his unrelenting pursuit of his goals. He’s a timeless character of the actor-slash-bartender or the model-slash-waitress formula. As he says, “You get a bar job to keep your days free for your real gig.” We want him to get a real gig because everyone roots for a dreamer.
Cruise is funny and entertaining as Flanagan. “Cocktail” was lucky to have him as the leading man. At the time, it seemed that Cruise was destined to play the same “Top Gun” ambitious hot-shot over and over again. Just take out the planes and put in the bottles. But, as we all know, he gets over that eventually, and for the time being he’s pretty good at playing those boasting men with too much bravado, so why don’t we all just enjoy it while it lasts?
While not instilled with as much Irish gusto as Joseph Donnelly from “Far And Away” or as passionate as in “Jerry McGuire,” Cruise brings a naïve charm to his character. It is clear that this role does not display Cruise’s full talents as an actor. He knows this will not be his shining glory on his laundry list of films, but he sure does have some fun. In one memorable behind-the-bar scene, keep a look-out for Cruise’s chicken dance. Much more fitting here than on Oprah’s couch.
After life gets too messy in the big city, Flanagan heads out to Jamaica to make money to open his bar and finally become that millionaire.
And Jamaica is where it really gets good—reggae music and floral print shirts abound. Don’t worry—“Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is on the playlist. Notably, the Beach Boy’s hit “Kokomo” débuted in “Cocktail,” and led to the film’s subsequent nominations for a Grammy and Golden Globe for the song.
After Flanagan joins the island life, he of course meets a girl (Elisabeth Shue), and an old friend returns to his life. Things go wrong, and it seems that poor Flanagan may never reach his goals. So, he jets out of there and returns to New York to hopefully rectify his professional and personal life.
While most of Flanagan’s women in this film are dismissible, Shue (who was nominated for an Oscar in 1996 for Leaving Las Vegas) is memorable as a young artist-slash-waitress visiting Jamaica who quickly falls for the cocky bartender. She gets to throw some decent tantrums, as she flip-flops from in love to pissed-off for most of her time onscreen.
Director Roger Donaldson, who has gone on to direct “Dante’s Peak” and “The Bank Job,” keeps the story afloat through some eye-candy bar scenes, and plenty of changes in scenery. It’s not every day that we get to visit New York and Jamaica in the span of one hour and forty minutes.
“Cocktail” succeeds because it really is an escape. Besides feeling like we’re on some sort of vacation, this is also the quintessential hero’s journey, but blended with spandex jazzercise, sweaty nightclub patrons and steamy make-out sessions.
In the end, “Cocktail” is able to throw in a few valuable—albeit hidden—lessons of life: Money isn’t everything, greed will ruin you, hold fast to dreams, and having sex under a waterfall will get you pregnant. But that’s really not the point. Like any fun-filled night on the town, there is no point.
Musing over his life, our hero says of his time as a bartender, “before you know it your life is just one long night with a few comatose daylight hours.” But if night time is as much fun as “Cocktail,” then cheers to that.