Brian Flanagan (Tom Cruise) has just left the Army, and on the bus back home to New York City he goes over in his mind all the big dreams he has, mainly of making a million dollars, and soon. He arrives back at the bar of his Uncle Pat (Ron Dean), who is pleased to see him and keen to hear of his plans, but when Brian goes out to look for work at one of the big corporations, he quickly discovers that without the proper qualifications nobody wants to know him there. Somewhat crestfallen, he is walking past a bar when he sees a "Help Wanted" sign outside, and goes inside, little knowing this will change his life...
Like Pretty Woman, originally Cocktail was a far more serious and gritty work on the page, but those studio heads decided nobody wanted to see Tom Cruise in a heavyweight drama, and lightened the mood considerably so that when the serious bits did turn up, the overall cheesiness of the rest of the film diluted any raw emotions that might trouble the typical audience member. This was one of those efforts starring the Cruiser where he could do no wrong at the box office, probably because he was not about taking chances in his career, and this was about as safe as you could get.
One glimpse of the star flinging around cocktail shakers and alcoholic beverage bottles in the ads was all the public needed to see: this was the movie for them, only to find out all that athleticism with the drinks took up about ten minutes of the running time and the rest was the star's usual maverick taking on the world with an all-purpose cheeky grin, or more occasionally a frown troubling that handsome brow to let us know when he's being sincere. Indeed, the plotline takes the path of Cruise drinking all night (which he and the other characters pretty much do): starting out funloving, getting to bed an attractive blonde, then getting increasingly morose until he's passed out from drink-induced misery.
He even gets into a brawl. Brian's mentor in all this is bartender Doug Coughlin (Bryan Brown), who takes the young man under his wing and teaches him all that receptacle-juggling. Meanwhile, Brian realises that the college life is telling him nothing useful, not because he's too stupid to learn, heavens no, it's because the lecturers know nothing of the street. So from then on, although he still dreams of making it big in the bar-owning business, he does essentially become a barman, first in a small establishment, then in a glossy yuppie nightclub where he can throw all the alcohol he can get his hands on.
However, life does not run smooth and a disagreement over Gina Gershon leads Brian to head off in a huff to Jamaica, for the radical career change of being a barman again. Here he meets Jordan (Elisabeth Shue), who is naturally the woman he has been waiting for his whole life, but hey, he's not going to be pinned down as he has his wild oats to sow and after he cheats on her she flies home. He is well aware he has made a mistake and spends the rest of a film that is feeling more and more sorry for itself trying to get her back. Cocktail is most facile ironically when it is trying to be most serious, and the true heart-rending stuff this aspires to build up to is way beyond its grasp. What they should have done was fill the hundred minutes or so with Cruise and Brown doing the drink tossing thing, firing off quips, and marvelling that none of the customers resent having to wait ten minutes for them to stop arseing about and actually serve them. Music by J. Peter Robinson, along with a large selection from the soundtrack album.