The Infiltrator (2016) / Thiller-Drama

MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, language throughout, some sexual content and drug material
Running Time: 127 min.

Cast: Bryan Cranston, John Leguizamo, Diane Kruger, Benjamin Bratt, Juliet Aubrey, Amy Ryan, Joseph Gilgun, Yul Vasquez, Olympia Dukakis, Jason Isaacs, Simon Andreu, Michael Pare
Director: Brad Furman
Screenplay: Ellen Brown Furman (Based on the book by Robert Mazur)

Review published July 13, 2016

Bryan Cranston (Kung Fu Panda 3, Trumbo) decides to go on the other side of the drug laws from his stint on the wildly popular TV show "Breaking Bad" with The Infiltrator, playing a true-life U.S. Customs agent named Robert Mazur, who, in the 1980s, would go undercover as a money launderer to bust some of the country's most wanted traffickers at the height of the Reagan-era, "War on Drugs".  Set in 1986, the highly effective operative, Mazur, is set for retirement when he decides to do one more case in "Operation C-Chase" to take down the drug men, only this time, he decides that the only way to actually stop the influx of product is to follow the money instead of the drugs, and take down the biggest fish in the game as he climbs up the proverbial food chain.  Under his new identity of Bob Musella, Mazur plays a high roller with mafia ties who gains the trust of some men within a powerful and deadly Colombian drug cartel channeling through Miami, headed by the notorious Pablo Escobar, to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into his sham company operating as a legit business so that it won't draw suspicion. 

Adapted from Mazur's own memoir by Ellen Brown Furman, a first-time screenwriter who just so happens to be the mother of the director, Brad Furman, who already has a couple of Hollywood releases under his belt in The Lincoln Lawyer and Runner Runner Unfortunately, while The Infiltrator is never unwatchable, it also feels very much like a true story that has been contorted to fit into a traditional Hollywood thriller, jazzed up with plenty of fabrications that put much of the film into the realm of complete fiction.  Despite quality thespians like John Leguizamo (Sisters), Amy Ryan (Central Intelligence), Diane Kruger (The Host), and Benjamin Bratt (again, doing his Ricardo Montalban interpretation), The Infiltrator plays mostly like a made-for-HBO attempt to riff on directors like Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese, except without their visionary talents to put it all together without looking like every scene had been made in an assembly line of genre tropes.

The Infiltrator benefits from a solid cast of character actors, including a fine central performance by the ever-reliable Cranston, who plays Mazur with intelligence, charisma, a good amount of sympathy, and an equal part sleazy salesman.  It's not an Oscar-worthy part, as the script and the direction are a bit too formulaic to allow for juicy performances, but he does have a natural command of the screen that allows us to care about how he's going to get into and out of the viper pit that he's jumped head-first into in order to fulfill his required mission.  It's interesting to watch the character at work, as he's a decent family man caught up trying to pass himself off as a scuzzy criminal, so adamant to not engage in anything immoral with a prostitute/stripper paid for by one of the baddies that he ends up inventing a fiancée for the reason he can't indulge, which further puts his life at risk when the agency has to put out a rookie female agent to impersonate her.

Unfortunately, Brad Furman's film is too fits-and-starts to hold the occasional groove for long, leaving The Infiltrator feeling like a collection of story elements we've seen before in movies featuring undercover agents trying to take down organized crime since the time Hollywood started making them.  A few too many scenes of Bob trying to maintain a sense of normalcy with his own wife makes it seem like he's not a very good agent, perpetually putting her in harm's way by being around her.  There's a particularly clumsy scene involving Mazur having to give the performance of the lifetime with one of his would-be adversaries runs into him as he's taking his wife out for an anniversary dinner, with the end result being the kind of thing you'd only see in a commercial movie -- one that's not very good.  In another example of fantasy filmmaking, there's also a scene involving a strange voodoo ritual that has also been obviously fabricated to bring a big movie moment in the middle of a prolonged lull in the film's story.

Despite trying to be a hard-edged crime drama, Furman seems reticent on letting loose with the film, shooting several scenes at strip clubs where gangsters go to watch women who don't actually take their clothes off, operatives in the cartel all deal their drugs without every really showing it, and people get killed just off camera in ways meant to be startling, if only we weren't two steps ahead of these "surprise" hits occurring.  Even the soundtrack, which trots out overused songs like Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman", Rush's "Tom Sawyer" and The Who's "Eminence Front", feels like they belong in a film set a decade before (Nu Shooz's "I Can't Wait" is perhaps the only song from the year the film is set).  If there's anything truly missing that could make The Infiltrator something more than just passable entertainment, it's a sense of gritty realism, but Furman seems to want to play in the mud without getting any dirt under his fingernails.

Even with all of the staleness in presentation, the film does have a certain momentum, thanks to the acting, enough to make me waver throughout as to whether I might actually give it the most modest of recommendations.  Unfortunately, the choice to shoot the finale as a big movie set-piece in which all of the various plot threads are closed in a too-tidy fashion proved to be too much for me to overlook, especially since this monumental event didn't actually happen the way it is portrayed in real life.  The Infiltrator's greatest irony is that it's about a group of law enforcement agents who must put on the performance of their lifetimes to keep alive long enough to get the evidence they need in the midst of the most suspicious and watchful criminals on the planet, and yet, in the movie abut them, even some of the finest actors in Hollywood can't convince us that any of them are who they say they are throughout most of this mechanical story that feels determinedly compromised.

Qwipster's rating:

©2016 Vince Leo