The Infiltrator is yet another average biopic carried by a watchable batch of performances and baffling pre-credits scrolling text that sums up how history was made by the acts of a few men. Specifically, how a massive 80s money laundering scheme was busted by one diehard U.S. Customs agent (Robert Mazur, whose tell-all was adapted by writer Ellen Sue Brown). Bryan Cranston stars and produces (a famous face to attract audiences), Brad Furman boasts directorial rights (a proven talent of Runner Runner/The Lincoln Lawyer fame), and period aesthetics strike free-flowing notes of nostalgia – in other words, expectations are set correctly and met with ease.
The story of Robert Mazur is one of espionage, drugs and Pablo freakin’ Escobar. Colombia was smuggling cocaine into America by the boatload, container load – however dealers could sneak it – and Ronald Regan was waging a war agains the addicting infestation. This is where Mazur comes in, with a brilliant plan to stop following the drugs, and start following the money (dubbed C-Chase). He’s given the OK to go undercover, along with his new partner, Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo). After some introductory legwork, Mazur wins the trust of Escobar’s lackeys under the guise of businessman/money launderer Bob Musella – but it’s taking too long. A few slip-ups almost blow Mazur’s cover (Diane Kruger plays rookie Kathy Ertz, who acts as Musella’s fiancee), as Musella finds himself getting closer and closer to the organization’s heart. Can Mazur stay in character until he hooks the big fish, or will someone finally sniff out the rat in their midst?
Surprises are few and far between here (even if you didn’t read the book/follow the news) given how predictably formulaic The Infiltrator becomes. Every scene plays out in a coincidental order without much mystery, as Mazur is kept alive by blind, divine luck on more than one occasion. Clichés and oversights trump stellar police work, all fuelled by Mazur’s decision to forgo retirement for one last case. It’s how scribe Ellen Sue Brown details Mazur’s case, rambling through run-ins and asides that could have been cut in favor of a shorter, more necessary length. We appreciate such a reenactment of historical importance, but would have been more captivated by Mazur’s actual account. In other words, it’s a bit too Hollywood (as expected).
That’s no discredit to Cranston’s leading role, though. As Mazur – the slick-haired, family-loving chameleon – he’s forced to battle two personalities who belong in separate, opposite worlds. One man strives to do right by his wife and children, always thinking of their safety, while the other demoralizes restaurant bus boys and goes to strip clubs with gangsters. Cranston is able to strike a conflicted balance between the two appearances, but also details Mazur’s loosening grip on reality as Bob Musella becomes more than just a fake identity. When you live an undercover case for how long Mazur did, the lies become harder to keep – a struggle that Cranston battles with conviction.
Other leading characters help to showcase different sides of the law, from Amy Ryan’s ball-busting top official to John Leguizamo’s in-too-deep undercover lunatic. It’s not a very funny film, but you can always count on Leguizamo’s sass for a quick chuckle, or Diane Kruger’s unexpected tactical brilliance to take Cranston’s Mazur by surprise. Benjamin Bratt makes us sympathize with a drug dealer’s plight (just a businessman who’s no more corrupt than our own government), Joseph Gilgun plays the same criminal type he always does, and Yul Vazquez tries to grab Cranston’s junk in a flirtatious approval of cooperation. Again, nothing out of the norm…except for that last part maybe.
It doesn’t come down to The Infiltrator being a forgettable film. Not in the least. Brad Furman shoots a colorful, period-savvy investigation that earns a few noteworthy looks (Cranston’s wedding scene, powder-covered nightclubs, an unexpected American death), and performances are nothing short of tight. But deterioration comes by the hand of scenes that carry on too long, and storytelling methods that never hit higher than a History Channel special – a cinematic scourge that eradicates atmosphere without warning. There’s a much better version of this coked-up investigation somewhere in here, but even at its current length, audiences shouldn’t have any issues following Cranston’s lead.
The Infiltrator gets by on a stellar lead performance by Bryan Cranston, along with strong support from the cast around him.