by Philip Price
“The Infiltrator” opens with a nice little tracking shot through a 1985 bowling alley as Rush plays on the soundtrack and arcade games make up the lighting. We're informed we're in Tampa yet we're following a man with hair so black it can't be natural and who is wearing a jacket in what is no doubt an insanely hot summer. Something feels off. When the camera finally pans around from the back of the figure’s head to reveal Bryan Cranston's face and all the stories it tells with its many cracks and crevices, but still ruggedly handsome and definitive features most will know the set-up we've been dropped into. Given the context clues provided not only by the title of the film, but by what we see in the opening seconds it is clear Cranston is undercover and is preparing for a moment of some sort. He's effortless in his adaptation of the customs and dialect in which the men he's now keeping company with do business. From here we are given a brief and subtle glimpse of how adept Cranston's character, who we come to learn is U.S. Customs and Drug Enforcement Agent Robert Mazur, actually is at modifying his persona and adjusting to whatever the situation might call for which will naturally inform moments later in the film to be filled with even more tension once we become invested in the characters. In all honesty, you've seen this movie before. It is easy to pick up on the beats of the story and understand where things are headed even if the real life events this film depicts are likely much more complicated than we're led to believe. By containing this story to what are more or less genre trappings though, director Brad Furman doesn't limit the power of the story or the tension that unfolds from these moments, but rather gives what is undoubtedly a sprawling epic guidelines by which the highlights and necessary information of Mazur's story can be communicated to a mass audience in a clear and effective way. “The Infiltrator” may feel somewhat familiar in its execution, but the exceptional cast led by Cranston and by virtue of the unique details that make up the familiar plot there is much to be taken from the film if one is looking for a white-knuckle crime drama worthy of that descriptor.
And so, it is 1985, special agent Mazur is coming off what might seemingly be his last mission given he sustains an injury that would qualify him for retirement with full benefits. This is an alluring proposition given Mazur has a wife and two children at home whose lives he tends to miss large chunks of, but there is something about the job he can't turn away from. Given it is the mid-80's this means that it takes places at a time in U.S. history when the importation of drugs, specifically crack cocaine, was running rampant. In light of this Customs is overwhelmed with cases as it conveyed by Amy Ryan's director of operations Bonni Tischler who, after Mazur turns down retirement, partners him with Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) who has an informant (Juan Cely) that could be their "in" to infiltrating some of the world's largest cartels. Mazur becomes "Bob Musella" who is set to become a pivotal player for drug lords as he offers them the opportunity to make their dirty money look clean. The informant first introduces them to low-level movers Gonzalo Mora Jr. (Rubén Ochandiano) and Sr. (Simón Andreu) who assess Musella in his credibility and willingness to party with them which gets him in trouble when he creates a fictional fiancée to get him out of a situation that might threaten his marriage. In doing this, Tischler is forced to place novice agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger) in the field as Mazur's soon-to-be wife. While Abreu handles his informant and keeps the Mora's in check Mazur's Musella continues to climb the ladder as he is introduced to Javier Ospina (Yul Vazquez) and then Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt) who was a wealthy Chilean-born jeweler and one of the main collectors of cash for the Medellín cartel in the United States. As a direct associate of Pablo Escobar it is at this point that both Mazur and Ertz must come to terms with just how deep they have become entrenched not only in the situation, but with the people whom they have somewhat become fond of. On top of orchestrating the infiltration and carrying out this persona that allows Escobar's organization and mist trusted associates to trust him Mazur is simultaneously helping take down Bank of Credit and Commerce International (the seventh largest bank in the world at the time) which was secretly assisting the cartels in moving their money.
While the film starts off somewhat slow in its exposition editors Luis Carballar, Jeff McEvoy, and David Rosenbloom really find a groove by the time the film hits its thirty-minute mark. As the movie settles into its rhythm and we begin to get to know the characters better and better it is clear how much more they are conveying about the situation than the actual plot is. Like I said, the plot is paint by the numbers "undercover operation," but through the instant love/hate camaraderie between Mazur and Abreu and how the film then makes us feel as if we've known each new level of command that the Customs agents must go through in order to reach their goal of Escobar for years is a quality not to be taken lightly. The chain of command we come to know could be little more than a barrage of different Latino and Hispanic actors spouting lines about how much affection they have for torturing people, but instead they each possess a distinctive quality. The Mora's are more your typical drug traffickers-what one would expect from the type of people who live in a world of excessive money and no code by which they try to love by. It is when we reach Vazquez's Ospina that there is a more refined state of being. The higher up the chain Mazur goes the less and less these people seem to be involved in the seediest of seedy operations. This especially becomes true when Mazur and Ertz become fast friends with Alcaino and his wife Gloria (Elena Anaya). At about the hour mark Cranston really begins to dive into and break down the psychological state of Mazur as he deals with choices that could put his marriage in jeopardy, but at the same time could compromise his mission. He deals in walking the line of not knowing who he really is before crossing the line of full immersion and while it spares us any of these insights on Ertz's part what it does with their characters and what Cranston and Kruger do as performers is actually somewhat surprising and impactful in unexpected ways. There is a kind of compassion that is formed on the part of Mazur and Ertz as they've come to know the Alcaino's not just as drug dealers, but human beings. They have been welcomed into the inner-circle and so, when it comes time to inevitably bring down the hammer there is part of these characters that wished they didn't have to. It is a caveat unique enough to the situation that it gives the film extra heft and more than just tension, but real emotional weight as we draw near to the conclusion.
Sure, it may be easy to tell where the story is going from scene to scene and Furman, along with screenwriter Ellen Sue Brown who adapted Mazur's book, certainly telegraphs a few too many plot points, but in regards to executing the story and the inherent tension it holds this is a pleasurable thriller that more times than not will keep you at the edge of your seat. The editing moves and communicates the broad scope of what is happening efficiently while the actors provide the more specific details that make for the film to not feel as run of the mill as its structure suggests. There are of course several ideas thrown around within the straight-forward narrative that concern themselves with the main topic of drug trafficking. Whether it be Bratt spouting ideologies of how America's economy is addicted to drugs, never mind its people or an outed informant hoping to legitimize his life by questioning why the human race begs for a list of do's and don'ts from the church only to act like animals in defiance-there is plenty here to stimulate. The film also includes a few interesting facets of our protagonist’s job such as going to a graveyard to find an undercover alias or how someone in such a role deals with leading a double life for what could potentially be years at a time. All of this only adds to the immersive performance an actor like Cranston can bring to such a role. Even Leguizamo, who is often dismissed and relegated to bit supporting roles (and to some extent is treated the same way here) is able to pull out a fully formed character in Abreu. He's not simply the comic relief in an otherwise nerve-wracking movie, but Abreu is a fully formed person that likes to joke around while remaining a trustworthy source of street smarts and a keen ability to read people and situations that comes in handy when the film allows for us to see the full extent of his character. Still, as good as Leguizamo, Bratt, Vazquez, Olympia Dukakis and Juliet Aubrey all are it is Cranston who remains "the one who knocks" and the reason audiences will walk away from The Infiltrator feeling as if they've seen as good an example of a genre film as possible. In a scene that involves an anniversary cake Cranston turns on everything that makes him a movie star in that you'll physically sit-up in your seat and understand the impact of what you're witnessing. Cranston has that power and he exercises it to great effect turning “The Infiltrator” into a far more layered and compelling experience than it might have been otherwise.
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