Editor’s Note: The Infiltrator opened in wide theatrical release July 13, 2016.
While audiences gathered around their television sets in the mid 1980s to watch the Michael Mann-produced Miami Vice – a show known less for its generic, forgettable plots and more for its soon-to-be iconic fashion styles – a little-known U.S. Customs officer and onetime IRS accountant, Robert Mazur, was actually living the undercover life as “Bob Musella,” an Italian-American money launderer with supposed ties to the Mob who insinuated himself into the upper echelons of the Medellín drug cartel run by Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar, the onetime “King of Cocaine” and one of the wealthiest men at the time. If we take Mazur’s book at face value, he made a genius-level, logical conclusion that drug interdiction, finding and confiscating drugs before they were sold, wasn’t the answer (or only part of the answer) to the so-called “War on Drugs,” but stopping the flow of money into and out of the United States could fatally damage the drug cartel’s operations.
In Brad Furman’s adaptation, Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) is a long-lost, forgotten American Hero who deserves not just his own film, but a place in the law enforcement pantheon.
Of course, The Infiltrator, Brad Furman’s (Runner Runner, The Cadillac Lawyer) fictionalized adaptation of Mazur’s book, doesn’t take a close or critical look at the War on Drugs or whether it should have been fought in the first place, but takes the War on Drugs as a given, as a rational decision made by a government – ours – to bring law and order to the crime-ridden, lawless streets of major American cities. In Furman’s adaptation, Mazur (Bryan Cranston) is a long-lost, forgotten American Hero who deserves not just his own film, but a place in the law enforcement pantheon. Maybe. Maybe not. Judging a film’s connection to historical reality can result in a frustrating, ultimately fruitless exercise that leads nowhere. It’s better to focus on what a film says, on what a film means, intentionally or not, than on whether dramatic liberties or dramatic license has been taken with historical reality and where to draw the always arbitrary line between too little truth and too much.
Furman, however, wants to go where many other filmmakers have gone before, a list that doesn’t begin or end with Michael Mann, but includes Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather), Brian De Palma (Scarface), Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino), and more recently, Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco) and David O. Russell (American Hustle), self-evident stories of crime, corruption, and American capitalism, minus anything that could be called a unique or subversive spin on the material. At times, The Infiltrator feels like checklist filmmaking with Furman dutifully checking off the family vs. profession conflict, the abrasive, wild-card partner, an undercover relationship or two (with a female partner pretending to be his fiancé, a too-close relationship with a high-level drug trafficker and the cartel’s point man in the U.S.), and enough close calls (a dinner with his real wife becomes violent when a business associate from his other life makes an unexpected appearance, a briefcase with a hidden recorder slips open, etc., etc., etc.) to make the hands of even the most cynical moviegoer break out in clammy sweat.
So many players and intersecting subplots will leave moviegoers grasping to keep up with the title character’s occasionally murky behavior and seemingly under-motivated actions as he moves up the chain of command…
Just as dutifully, Furman crams The Infiltrator with exposition, introducing and dropping characters once they’ve fulfilled their overt narrative function about the drug cartel’s operations, the U.S. Customs sting operation (“C-Chase”), or the international bank, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), that became central to the federal government’s case against the Medellín drug cartel. So many players and intersecting subplots will leave moviegoers grasping to keep up with the title character’s occasionally murky behavior and seemingly under-motivated actions as he moves up the chain of command and gets ever closer to the high-level contacts that will help him permanently or partially disable the drug cartel’s business in the U.S. business. By the end, Furman makes sure to give Musella and his Medellín counterpart, Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), not just one, but several heart-to-heart chats where Alcaino reveals himself to be both a big family man and a big believer in trust with a capital T. We know better, of course, and before long, so will Alcaino.
Luckily for Furman and by extension, the audience, a talented cast, led by Cranston, a Tony- and Emmy-award winning, Oscar-nominated actor, and John Leguizamo as Mazur’s loose-cannon partner, Emir Abreu, and Diane Kruger as Kathy Ertz, Mazur’s undercover partner and faux-fiancé, works hard to elevate the material above its familiar, generic origins. Cranston and Kruger to get to play an actor’s dream: A double-layered performance, a performance inside a performance, a performance that allows them to slip between their personal/professional lives to their undercover lives, sometimes within the same scene (e.g., the aforementioned dinner scene where Mazur turns into Musella in front of his wife’s disbelieving, shocked eyes). Too often, though, The Infiltrator feels like bits and pieces borrowed – sometimes shamelessly – from filmmakers who got there first and did it much, much better.
At times, Brad Furman's The Infiltrator feels like checklist filmmaking, but luckily a talented cast led by Bryan Cranston and John Leguizamo elevate the material above its familiar, generic origins.