Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Language throughout, some Sexual Content and Drug Material
Directed by: Brad Furman
Written by: Ellen Brown Furman
(based on the book THE INFILTRATOR by Robert Mazur)
Starring: Bryan Cranston, John Leguizamo, Benjamin Bratt, Diane Kruger, Yul Vasquez, Ruben Ochandiano, Juliet Aubrey & Amy Ryan
THE INFILTRATOR doesn’t reinvent the crime-drama, but includes enough positive qualities to make for an interesting viewing to say the least. It’s strange that the true story of the biggest drug bust in American history hasn’t been adapted to the screen before, but now we get to see Bryan Cranston cross over from a small-screen drug kingpin to a big-screen undercover special agent. THE INFILTRATOR’s grainy style adds a sense of gritty realism to an already dark story, but the script has a few clichés you would expect in any undercover cop story. The screenplay’s occasional lapses into ham-fisted predictability are remedied by smart storytelling, rock solid characters, and a rising sense of tension that kept me on the edge of my seat.
The time is the 1980’s. Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) is a U.S. Customs special agent who’s allowed a chance for retirement, but agrees to one last job. Mazur signs up to take down the Colombian cartel, who have been transporting cocaine worth a fortune into the U.S. Needing a new airtight identity, Mazur becomes money launderer “Bob Musella.” Aided by his unhinged partner Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) and undercover “fiancé” Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), Mazur begins business with the Colombian cartel and discovers that he may have signed on for much more than he anticipated. Pablo Escobar’s reach goes far beyond the U.S. and he has many financially powerful friends. Bob Mazur must tread carefully amongst these murderers, dealers and criminals, walking a tightrope between exposing himself and facing the deadly consequences or caring too much about some of the people he’s trying to bring down.
If you go into THE INFILTRATOR expecting tons of action and an ultra-fast pace, you might find yourself disappointed by an intricately detailed true story and deliberate pacing. This isn’t so much a crime-thriller as it is a detailed crime-drama. Bryan Cranston’s Mazur takes center stage, but Leguizamo’s partner Emir also receives a significant amount of screen time. We see Mazur’s slow entrance into the cartel world as he makes new “friends” and contacts, carefully climbing up the ranks in search of bigger fish to fry. Pablo Escobar isn’t a major character in this film. In fact, his presence is an off-screen threat for 99.9% of the running time and he only appears for a one second non-speaking cameo.
Instead of Escobar facing off against Mazur in person (something that never happened in real-life), we watch Mazur stalk and carefully snare many of Escobar’s corrupt business buddies, top men, and violent enforcers. The scary part is that each of these real-life villains is given a personality other than being a one-note thug or intimidating gangster. The major player of these antagonists is the complex Roberto Alcaino (played wonderfully by Benjamin Bratt, who also starred in TRAFFIC). Roberto is a humanized bad guy to a point where I began to sympathize for him in a lot of ways. He’s definitely not a person worth rooting for, but you can somewhat understand his reason for being in a highly illegal life-damaging business. Roberto is just like any other successful businessman in that he has a family and thrives in a job that he’s good at, but it’s unfortunate that his chosen career involves cold-blooded murder and tons of cocaine.
While THE INFILTRATOR doesn’t pack itself full of gun fights, car chases, and hammy dialogue between over-the-top villains, it still becomes increasingly suspenseful and indulges in unexpected violence. The movie has many stand-out sequences that floored me for their sheer thrill and suspense factor. One specific scene with John Leguizamo is beyond intense, another has Cranston’s protagonist making a potentially fatal mistake, and yet another sees Mazur’s personal life crossing over into Bob’s fictitious persona…with nail-biting results. A fantastic tracking shot aids the film’s satisfying finale and a nicely chosen 80’s soundtrack adds to the already believable atmosphere. Both of these qualities reminded me of Scorsese’s crime films in very good ways.
THE INFILTRATOR’s main flaws arrive in the clichéd first act, but the story noticeably picks up the pace and quality as soon as Mazur crossed paths with Roberto. Cranston has proven himself to be an excellent actor in the past and that doesn’t change here. John Leguizamo provides comic relief and muscle in equal measure, receiving two of the film’s most intense moments. Diane Kruger is somewhat underused as Mazur’s fake fiancé, but still has her stand-out scenes. Meanwhile, Bratt rivals Cranston as the film’s best performance.
Though one might argue that the U.S. war on drugs was a failed fiasco, it has never ceased to give us great entertainment centered around this controversial issue. With a well-executed 80’s atmosphere, stellar performances, and an interesting true story to tell, THE INFILTRATOR more than rises above its clichés and manages to be a bit deeper than you might initially expect. This solid crime-drama humanizes its thugs without ever glorifying them and kept me on the edge of my seat for almost the entire last two-thirds of the running time. If you’re interested in true-crime and want to see Cranston play a role on the opposite side of the law, then I highly recommend checking out THE INFILTRATOR.