D: Brad Furman / 127m
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Diane Kruger, John Leguizamo, Benjamin Bratt, Juliet Aubrey, Yul Vazquez, Elena Anaya, Rubén Ochandiano, Simón Andreu, Joseph Gilgun, Juan Cely, Art Malik, Saïd Taghmaoui, Amy Ryan, Jason Isaacs, Olympia Dukakis, Michael Paré
Number four hundred and twenty-nine in what feels like 2016’s never-ending list of true stories – or movies based on true stories – The Infiltrator is a throwback to the kind of crime dramas made in the Seventies, with the main character going undercover and putting their life on the line in order to expose the mob boss/cartel leader/fiendish criminal mastermind who has so far remained untouchable. Here the main character is Robert ‘Bobby’ Mazur, a veteran US Customs special agent nearing retirement, but who takes on one more undercover case when another agent, Emir Abreu (Leguizamo), asks for his help. Abreu’s case involves an informant (Cely) with ties to a Colombian drug cartel, and the aim, at first, is to follow the drug trail from America back to Colombia and catch the cartel leaders red-handed. But Mazur has a better idea: instead of following the drugs, why not follow the money?
Assuming an alias, Bob Musella, Mazur poses as a businessman who can launder the cartel’s money through the companies he owns, effectively making it clean and untraceable. He and Abreu are put in contact with a couple of the cartel’s men (Ochandiano, Andreu), who in turn introduce them to Javier Espina (Vazquez), a high-level enforcer whose job it is is to assess whether or not Musella can be trusted, and his claims for the cartel’s money are true. Reassured that they are, Espina gives the go ahead for Musella to start laundering the cartel’s money, but when Mazur is put in a compromising situation with a lap dancer – he’s happily married with two children – he invents a fiancée to get himself out of it. Mazur’s boss, Bonni Tischler (Ryan), is less than happy with this, but arranges for a female agent, Kathy Ertz (Kruger), to step into the role.
With his “credentials” proving satisfactory, Mazur cites a problem with the way the cartel currently moves its money as an excuse for meeting with the person who runs it all. This leads him to both the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which will help him launder larger quantities of the cartel’s money than he can make look legal, and the acquaintance of Roberto Alcaino (Bratt), whose role is to facilitate both the movement of the cartel’s money and the distribution of its drug shipments through an entry point in Miami. Alcaino welcomes Mazur and Ertz into his home, and they become friendly with both him and his wife, Gloria (Anaya). Using a tape recorder hidden in a briefcase, Mazur is able to gain evidence on all the parties concerned, but needs just one more thing to happen before he can have everyone arrested: the release of funds belonging to Pablo Escobar which the US government has frozen. Without these funds, Escobar, who is the head of the cartel, will not commit to using Mazur exclusively, and the undercover work he’s done will only cause so much damage.
In the hands of director Brad Furman and screenwriter Ellen Sue Brown (Furman’s wife), Robert Mazur’s tale of deception and intrigue becomes a tale of patience and deferment for the audience, as any likely tension or nail-biting moments are kept to a minimum, and Mazur’s scam on the cartel moves along slowly and relentlessly to its expected denouement. Along the way, there are lots of scenes where Mazur as Musella insists on doing things his way and the cartel almost meekly agrees. His cover remains intact throughout, as does Ertz’s, and only Espina suspects they’re not who they say they are. At this point, the viewer will be grateful for something going wrong, as up til now it’s all gone along too smoothly (it may well have been this way, but it doesn’t make for compelling viewing). But not for long; Espina’s potential threat is removed before it’s even had time to get going, and the viewer is left wondering if anything is ever going to upset Mazur’s carefully balanced apple cart.
The movie also struggles to maintain a consistent focus, with subplots that come and go without advancing the main narrative, and scenes surrounding Mazur’s home life that feel tacked on and derivative. His wife, Evelyn (Aubrey), is supportive of his work even though she wishes he’d retired when he could have, but is inexplicably jealous of Ertz and their fake relationship (she even asks Ertz if she’s sleeping with him). Elsewhere, Mazur is followed by someone who turns out to be a CIA agent, but you have to be paying attention to the end credits to learn why. And both Mazur and Ertz appear to bond with Alcaino and his wife to the point where they feel sympathy for them. These and other aspects of what should be a fairly straightforward storyline may well be meant to add depth and complexity to proceedings, but instead they only show just how bland that storyline really is.
As for the performances, Cranston plays Mazur with a great deal of charm (and a quite impressive wig), but we never really get to know him as a person. He’s good at his job, but we don’t know what motivates him to be so good, or what makes him so effective as an undercover agent. Kruger comes on board halfway through and her character’s (quickly ignored) inexperience proves a good foil for Cranston’s taciturn dedication, though viewers may well be surprised by the number of times they hug. Leguizamo offers good value for the viewer’s time (as always), portraying Abreu as a thrill-hungry agent with an attitude to match; whenever he’s on screen the movie livens up a little. As a second tier kingpin, Bratt exudes a glossy menace that is much more effective for being delivered with a reluctance born out of long experience of the life he leads, while from the supporting cast, Dukakis has a ball as Mazur’s aunt, Vazquez is unnerving as the camp yet deadly Espina, and Aubrey expresses more in a look than seems entirely feasible.
With its slow but steady pacing and attention to period detail, the movie doesn’t lack for sincerity, but it doesn’t quite know how to pick up the pace when it’s needed. Furman concentrates on explaining how the cartel’s money can be laundered, but it’s exposition that only needs confirming once, whereas it’s explained on at least four separate occasions. There are twists and turns here and there, some entirely predictable, others less so but lacking in impact. And there’s one scene, in a restaurant involving an unlucky waiter and an anniversary – no, birthday – cake that appears out of nowhere (and context) and tries to make Mazur something he’s not: a hardass.
With so many angles to cover, and not all of them as effective as needed, The Infiltrator relies more and more on Cranston to pull it through the weeds, but it’s an uphill struggle even for him. With Leguizamo given less and less to do thanks to Kruger’s involvement, and her role almost entirely (and deliberately) superficial at times, it’s only Bratt’s urbane take on Alcaino that keeps the final third interesting. It’s all given a rosy patina of sophistication by DoP Joshua Reis, though, and the movie benefits greatly from the way in which Furman uses composition to establish mood. But this particular tale eschews mood too often for it to work as a tense, engaging thriller, and in doing so, manages to downplay the enormity of Mazur’s achievement. And when it comes, it comes at a wedding that looks like it’s been put together for a reality TV show rather than a Customs Office sting operation.
Rating: 6/10 – moderately absorbing, yet banal in execution, The Infiltrator suffers from being too much on an even keel, and not loosening up in its approach at telling Robert Mazur’s amazing story; Cranston is a pleasure to watch, even if you think Mazur was inordinately lucky in what he did, and he keeps things from disintegrating too quickly, leaving a movie that wants to be topical (despite being set in the late Eighties), but lacks the modern day relevance that could be assigned to it.