The Infiltrator is a stylishly crafted and well-acted dramatic thriller, but breaks little new ground despite fascinating subject matter.
In The Infiltrator, it's the mid-1980s and U.S. Customs Service special agent Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) spends his days working undercover in order to bust drug smugglers and money-laundering businesses. With assistance from an informant recruited by his fellow agent Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), Robert is able to infiltrate the hierarchy of the Medellin Cartel: one of the most powerful drug cartels in the world, headed by the infamous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Passing himself off as the businessman Robert "Bob" Musella, Robert begins to win the trust of key figures in the cartel - in turn, gathering evidence against not only them, but also the Bank of Credit and Commerce International: the high-ranking private financial institution that does business with the cartel.
However, as Robert and his team - including agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), who poses as Robert's fiancée - get in deeper with the Medellin Cartel, so too grows the danger of them being found out and the terrible consequences that await them, should that happen. As the operation takes an increasingly heavy toll on his personal life too, Robert must work all the harder to keep his wits about him, knowing that just one false step could get him, his fellow agents and maybe even his family killed.
Based on the real-life Robert Mazur's written memoir about his time working for the U.S. government (fully titled The Infiltrator: My Secret Life Inside the Dirty Banks Behind Pablo Escobar's Medellin Cartel), The Infiltrator offers an effectively streamlined account of Mazur's actual experiences, courtesy of screenwriter Ellen Brown Furman - who, as it were, is also Infiltrator director Brad Furman's mother. The film's overarching narrative thus unfolds largely as as slow-burn, but consistently tense, dramatic thriller that is punctuated by intense moments of violence and/or disturbing situations.
While The Infiltrator maintains a consistent tension throughout as a result, it also treads in decidedly familiar ground for this type of crime drama/thriller material - failing to offer much in the way of unexpected twists/turns or fresh insight into the topics its broaches (the line between cop and criminal, the psychological effects of being undercover, and so forth). Brad Furman guides the proceedings with a steady directorial hand, yet fall short at delivering the sort of viewing experience that combines white-knuckle thrills with a deeper reflection on either its historical subject matter and/or its real-life characters (a la Argo, to cite another true story-based drama/thriller featuring Cranston).
The Infiltrator certainly looks good though, as Brad Furman and cinematographer Joshua Reis (who served as a cameraman on 2011's The Lincoln Lawyer, which Brad Furman also directed) deliver a visually-slick and well-crafted movie here - one that features an appropriately scuzzy and sleazy vision of the 1980s drug crime underworld. The film is further served by a mood-setting soundtrack that uses several hits songs of the 1970s and '80s (for one example, "Pusherman" by Curtis Mayfield) to embellish the procedural sequences in the film - at the same time, complimenting the many scenes where Robert and his drug lord targets conduct in not-so-respectable establishments (strip clubs, race tracks, and so forth). The production design by Crispian Sallis (Gladiator) and costumes from Dinah Collin (Hyde Park on Hudson) similarly capture the garish aesthetics and fashion sense of '80s drug-couture.
Bryan Cranston anchors The Infiltrator with a strong performance as Robert Mazur, whose no-nonsense manner and vulnerable family man disposition juxtaposes well with the unscrupulous roles that he must play for his job - providing a constant reminder that behind the controlled facade, Mazur lives in constant fear, knowing that one mistake is all it will take to cost him his life. Cranston also plays well against Diane Kruger as Kathy Ertz, an intelligent and capable agent whose only weakness is her inexperience in the field. John Leguizamo as Emir Abeu provides an effective foil to both Cranston and Kruger's characters in The Infiltrator - since, as he openly admits, Emir finds his line of work to be more exhilarating than exhausting, unlike those around him.
The Infiltrator's cast includes several noteworthy character actors in small, but substantial roles; including, Amy Ryan (Central Intelligence) as Robert's hard-edged boss Bonni Tischler; Juliet Aubrey (The White Queen) as Robert's supportive, but weary wife Evelyn Mazur; Olympia Dukakis (Away from Her) as Robert's eccentric Aunt Vicky; and Yul Vazquez (Magic City, Bloodline) as Javier Ospina, a member of the Medellin Cartel whose sexual proclivities make him both an unpredictable danger and a source of embarrassment for the cartel. However, out of all these supporting cast members in The Infiltrator, the one who gets to play more than a stock character is Benjamin Bratt as the high-ranking cartel member Roberto Alcaino: a fellow shown to be a very spiritual and principled family man, despite the illicit nature of how he makes a living.
The Infiltrator is a stylishly crafted and well-acted dramatic thriller, but breaks little new ground despite fascinating subject matter. While the film successfully compresses Mazur's experiences into a three-act narrative, it banks heavily on over-used genre tropes in order to do so - resulting in a movie that unfolds as a high-tension wire walk undercut by its formulaic structure. While it doesn't clear the bar set for taught drama by Cranston's acclaimed TV series Breaking Bad, The Infiltrator is a solid vehicle for the actor and has similar entertainment value (even with Cranston playing the good guy, this time around). For that reason, The Infiltrator is a worthwhile choice for those moviegoers seeking out a "thrill ride" that's very different than the typical summer movie nowadays.
The Infiltrator is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 127 minutes long and is Rated R for strong violence, language throughout, some sexual content and drug material.
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