A film review by Craig J. Koban October 21, 2016

THE INFILTRATOR jjj

2016, R, 128 mins.

 

Bryan Cranston as Robert Mazur  /  Diane Kruger as Kathy Ertz  /  Benjamin Bratt as Roberto Alcaino  /  John Leguizamo as Emir Abreu  /  Elena Anaya as Gloria Alcaino  /  Daniel Mays as Frankie  /  Amy Ryan as Bonni Tischler  /  Joseph Gilgun as Dominic  /  Gino Picciano as Banker

Directed by Brad Furman  /  Written by Ellen Brown Furman, based on the book by Robert Mazur

The irony that permeates THE INFILTRATOR is so thick you can cut it with a proverbial knife. 

Its star, Bryan Cranston, made a name for himself as an actor on the small screen in his multi-award nominated and winning performance on BREAKING BAD.  He played a good man driven to become a criminal and ultimately an empowered drug kingpin that had to keep his clandestine life a secret from those he held dear.  In the fact-based THE INFILTRATOR Cranston once again gets embroiled in the world of dangerous and high stakes narcotics trafficking, but this time he's on the side of the law as a federal agent that goes undercover as a money laundering businessman to take down the cartel of Pablo Escobar.  Much like Walter White from BREAKING BAD, Cranston's agent has to deal with larger issues of loyalty and morality that could easily take his life at any moment's notice.   

THE INFILTRATOR is based on the true story of U.S. Customs Service special agent Robert Mazur (Crantson), who decided to eradicate one of the largest and most nefarious drug peddlers in the world in Escobar in the 1980's, not to mention the financial organizations that were laundering his dirty money and allowing him to stay afloat.  We've seen countless films before about the duplicitous nature of undercover work, and THE INFILTRATOR, at times, has difficulty overriding our sense of overt familiarity with its genre; it has a decided been-there, done-that feel.  However, director Brad Furman (who made the very underrated THE LINCOLN LAWYER) does a terrific job of not glorifying the hellishly intense work of Mazur and his colleagues; he shows their jobs for what they are - incredibly stressful and driven by split second decision making that could mean the difference between living and dying.  That, and THE INFILTRATOR triumphantly shows why the dependably rock solid 60-year-old Cranston continues to be the most underutilized asset in Hollywood.   

 

 

The film opens with a wonderfully realized scene that introduces us to Mazur in 1986 as he's working undercover in a drug bust at a bowling alley that nearly gets derailed in an awfully bad way (the hidden mic he's wearing starts burning a hole in his chest, so the quick witted agent - always staying in character - fakes a heart attack).  Emerging from the mission mostly unscathed and earning a big score and victory, Mazur wants to wind down and spend time with his wife (Juliet Aubrey), but he gets pulled back into the undercover game to nail one of the biggest players in Escobar.  He and his colleagues form a fairly ingenuous strategy: they will go after the money of the drug czar first and foremost, whereas previous missions focused exclusively on stopping the drugs.  More specifically, he wants discover the secretive ways that Escobar and his accounting minions have been able to launder preposterous amounts of money undetected.  Mazur has an ambitious plan of infiltrating  money men at the highest levels of power and build a secure case from that. 

Going under the identity "Bob Musella" (a businessman that's skilled at laundering hundreds of millions of dollars of crooked money without leaving a trace), Mazur makes some initial contacts with Escobar's low level money men, and eventually works his way up to Escobar's financial second in command in Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt).  As he gets closer and closer with Alcaino - eventually becoming his close BFF - Mazur slowly begins to realize the extreme danger he's in, fully understanding that even the most minute of verbal slip-ups could spell doom for him.  He makes one silly blunder with a criminal contact by telling him that he's engaged to help resist the services of a paid lap dancer that he's been offered.  This mistake makes it up to the chain of his command (Amy Ryan), who decides that Mazur now needs a fake fiancÚ to help further sell his ruse.  He's assigned a rookie agent in Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger) that's never gone undercover before to play his faux bride-to-be.  Predictably, Mazur's mission gets increasingly more complicated and fraught with peril. 

Again, one of the things I admired about THE INFILTRATOR was the way it pays compelling respect for the work of Mazur and his crew, which ultimately makes it a very worthwhile examination of the paranoia-fuelled lives of undercover agents.  Many films in the past have a thorny tendency to sensationalize such work, but Furman is able to ring out as much genuine tension and intrigue from Mazur's work as he can, and often in unsuspecting and sly ways.  At times, the near suffocating level of unease that Mazur feels is made almost unbearable to endure at times, especially when he's forced to make lightning quick decisions on the moment to ensure his cover isn't blown.  There's a shocking sequence in the film when he's caught with his real wife by one of Escobar's men and is forced to display his phony alias to him by violently accosting the waiter that's trying to politely serve them.  His wife is predictably dismayed and embarrassed, but he later attempts to reassure her that it's just part of the job, a task more difficult than perhaps his undercover mission.  

Cranston is in truly refined form here as Mazur in a performance that has to walk a delicate highwire act of pretending to be a loathsome criminal and a devoted and caring family man.  As is the case with many films like this before, Cranston is afforded the opportunity here to play two distinct characters, and he seems wholly equal to the dual task by fully cementing himself within both personas with great subtlety and authenticity.  There are very few moments in the film when you doubt the conviction - and inner turmoil - of Mazur as he attempts to do the impossible.  He's supported by several other good turns by his co-stars, like Kruger, who's quite assured as the woman that has to masquerade as his future wife.  Benjamin Bratt is quietly chillingly as his soft spoken and calmly intimidating Alcaino.  John Leguizamo shows up in the obligatory John Leguizamo-ian role of a short tempered and motor mouthed co-worker of Mazur's that also puts his life in the balance.  Leguizamo can play roles like this in his sleep, but he nevertheless brings twitchy and frenetic charisma to his work here. 

THE INFILTRATOR is a paradoxical film on a visual level.  On one hand, it's beautifully shot and Furman gives his film a grainy atmospheric texture that's starkly foreboding, but at the same time I never once felt like I was fully immersed within its period settings.  Films set in the 70's and 80's are tricky, mostly because they either come off as too garishly ostentatious to the point of distraction or they simply do a poor job of encapsulating the era specific settings overall.  THE INFILTRATOR falls a bit more towards the latter, and aside from the costuming, cars, and tech here, the film looks and feels a bit too modern for its own good.  I simply didn't have the sensation of being swept away in its evocation of a bygone decade.  Strip away the props and THE INFILTRATOR looks like its set today. 

Beyond that, THE INFILTRATOR also relies too heavily of stale and tired genre troupes, such as the grieving wife to the undercover agent whose only sole purpose in the film is to be the beleaguered spouse that vehemently has to chastise her husband's vocational choice and plead with him to retire.  There are also numerous other times in the film when it becomes hard not to think about other versions of this same story (albeit with different players and settings) that have been done better before.  THE INFILTRATOR frequently strains for relevance in its attempts to segregate itself widely apart from an overcrowded pact.  However, when your film is populated by the likes of Cranston it becomes a bit easier to put aside many of its nagging faults.  There are very few films of this nature that are, for the most part, held together and propped up by the sheer presence and deeply committed and exemplary performance of its lead actor.  

THE INFILTRATOR is one of them.  

 this film.

  H O M E