Mark Reviews Movies

The Infiltrator


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Brad Furman

Cast: Bryan Cranston, John Leguizamo, Diane Kruger, Juliet Aubrey, Benjamin Bratt, Rubén Ochandiano, Yul Vazquez, Joseph Gilgun, Simón Andreu, Elena Anaya, Amy Ryan, Olympia Dukakis, Art Malik, Saïd Taghmaoui, Jason Isaacs

MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, language throughout, some sexual content and drug material)

Running Time: 2:07

Release Date: 7/13/16

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 13, 2016

Every idea that could give The Infiltrator a thematic backbone is briefly touched upon, only to be quickly dismissed. This is yet another movie based on a true story that believes the depiction of how that story unfolded is enough to sustain it. What's missing is a sense of purpose beyond presenting the events—a reason that this story is worth telling beyond the mere fact of the telling.

There's a lot with which to work within this story, too. The movie, adapted from Robert Mazur's book about his time as an undercover agent for the United States Customs Service, follows "Operation 'C' Chase," a sting operation during the mid-to-late 1980s that redirected the War on Drugs toward the oldest investigative trick in the book: Follow the money. The screenplay by Ellen Brown Furman hints at the political machinations behind the operation and the personal toll of such clandestine work, but the thrust of the narrative is the investigation itself. The fascinating elements are within the suggestions of what is happening behind the scenes—in the bigger picture of the political landscape and within these characters.

Bryan Cranston (solid here) plays Mazur—known as Bob to everyone. The prologue follows Bob on a sting that has to be cut short when the wire he's wearing starts to burn through the flesh on his chest. He's offered retirement with full benefits, which is a fact that he keeps from his wife Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey), but he realizes that there's a logical failing in Customs' approach to stopping the drug trade. Instead of following low-rent criminals to find drugs, Bob thinks it would be better to follow the money back to the high-end criminals in charge of the drug trade. Bob and his boss (Amy Ryan, once again making the most of a thankless role) want to nab the biggest of the big: Pablo Escobar.

The plan is for Bob to assume the identity of a "legitimate" businessman with ties to the mafia (not too difficult when his actual family was involved), establish a money-laundering relationship with the cartel, and work his way up through Escobar's underlings until he gets to the boss. His partner Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) has an informant who can get their foot in the door, and after Bob makes up one too many details on the fly about his false identity, Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), a first-timer for working undercover, eventually comes on board the operation pretending to be his fiancée.

The majority of what happens here relates exclusively to the plot. Bob moves from a father-and-son duo (Simón Andreu and Rubén Ochandiano) at the bottom rung to an unpredictable henchmen named Ospina (Yul Vazquez). Before he can get to Escobar, he has to deal with Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), a family man with a loving wife (Elena Anaya) and a well-earned suspicion of newcomers to his business. One of movie's most effective scenes puts Bob in a twisted "audition" to meet Roberto, in which the agent's life seems to be entirely dependent on the blind chance of a blood ritual performed by a shaman.

It's one of many scenes that alludes to a bigger idea that the movie never quite finds. In that case, it's the notion—a potentially terrifying one—that a lot of Bob's survival comes down to pure, dumb luck. Whatever keeps Bob in this line of work—in which his life is constantly in danger—is a mystery not only to us but also, perhaps, to Bob himself. Emir offers a possible explanation when he explains his reason for staying with the job: The danger of the work is his drug of choice.

Bob, though, tries to remain as clean as possible, not succumbing to any temptations even when it would make his job less dangerous or, at least, a little easier (Someone offers him a prostitute, and turning her down leads him to make up a fiancée). His primary goal, beyond doing the job, is to keep his family safe. He doesn't let the work come home with him (He doesn't answer the door when Emir comes knocking), and there's some tension when he takes Evelyn out to a restaurant for their anniversary, only to come face-to-face with his undercover life. At that point, Bob has no choice but show the kind of man he can be in front of his wife.

At two separate times, two characters have to decide whether to risk their own safety or sacrifice someone else to guarantee it. It's not a simple decision, either, because the movie suggests that these relationships, phony as they may be in some instances, are real enough for the people involved. This is the closest the movie gets to finding something deeper than simply going through the motions of the story, although the relationship that develops between Bob (and Kathy) and Roberto (and his wife) isn't convincing enough of a conflict for it to really hit home (More intriguing is a moment of solidarity between Bob and Kathy after a close call—an embrace that goes on for a beat too long).

One can feel this concepts simmering below the surface of The Infiltrator. That surface is so thick with plot details, though, that they never break through.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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