Friday, July 29, 2016

The Infiltrator Movie Review

The world surely has no shortage of movies about the international drug trade or about law enforcement using everything in their arsenal to take down the cartels. There’s also plenty of movies about the perils of going undercover to take down a criminal organization. The Infiltrator combines both for a premise that is not especially original, but which is often enthralling. There’s something about the story of a person who goes into another world pretending to be something they’re not. There’s the adrenaline rush of going into the danger zone. There’s the excitement of getting to be someone else for a while leading a sort of double life. It’s like getting a chance to be someone and do something that you’re not. Who wouldn’t like the opportunity to see how that fits? Of course who wants to take with it the possibility of getting killed?

Movies about undercover agents run the gamut from Miami Vice, which is mainly a male-oriented action thriller with little room for the psychology of going deep cover and rarely any true sense of danger for Crockett and Tubbs, to Donnie Brasco, which is full of fear, paranoia, the distancing effect between the agent and his family, and the adoption of traits of the people he surrounds himself with and the character he’s playing. The Infiltrator has much more in common with the latter, so much so that at times it plays like a cover song that reinvents the familiar chords and melody you already know.

Bryan Cranston plays Bob Mazur, a Customs Agent who poses as Bob Musella, a New York money launderer for the mafia looking to help the Colombian drug cartel Pablo Escobar and his people hide their money using banks and dummy businesses. His partner, Abreu (John Leguizamo) is skilled at playing his part, but is also a bit unpredictable. He’s willing to do things and say things to maintain the pretense that keeps him alive and he’s capable of witnessing horrific things without flinching. But we wonder all the time if his judgment is off and when it might get Bob into trouble. Of course Bob gets himself into trouble when he invents a fiancée to cover for his lack of interest in a prostitute. His personal moral sin not being unfaithful to his real-life wife leaves him exposed and his superior (Amy Ryan) has to saddle him with another undercover agent (Diane Kruger) posing as his future bride.

Looking at the cast list just causes amazement. This is a showcase for some truly fine acting. Cranston is a solid lead to carry the weight of such an enormous investigation. Amy Ryan is a fine actor, although she seems miscast here, or rather over-cast. Why get a high-profile Oscar-nominated performer for a thankless role that relies on clichés? She’s this hard-talking, tough-as-nails superior whose clipped manner of speaking keeps meetings and conversations truncated and her penchant for acting very un-feminine seems less like a character trait than a calculated decision to provide more substantial material for a female supporting role. She’s still great, but the role is a disservice to Ryan’s talent. Benjamin Bratt and Elena Anaya are sweet and cordial as the drug cartel Acaino and his wife, Gloria. He’s the businessman and she’s the housewife soaking up the luxury their criminal life provides. Lequizamo is the highlight of the movie. Sadly, I think he’ll be forgotten by the time Oscar nominations roll around, but he exhibits the greatest range of complexity in the film. The great Olympia Dukakis even puts in an appearance as Bob’s aunt who can fill in to help sell the profile of Musella to further ingratiate himself into Alcaino’s life.

The relationship between Alcaino and Musella becomes the emotional centerpiece. The relation between Bob and his wife is a key side note, showing how the undercover world is seeping into his real life, affecting and infecting it slowly. But Musella and his fake fiancée become intimate friends with the Alcainos. And though they are playing a role, there’s a part of them that is taken in by how genuinely giving and kind they are. Yes, he’s a drug cartel, but he’s far removed from the ugliness and the violence of that business. The best part of the screenplay by Ellen Sue Brown, based on Mazur’s own book, is that which shows the depths to which Bob and Kathy have to plunge in becoming their friends, the difficulty and, to some extent, tragedy of having a hand in Alcaino’s arrest, and the disappointment of betrayal in the faces of these people who counted them as friends. Yes, it’s business and not personal, but how can it not be when you’ve had dinner in their home and met their daughter – the innocent girl whose father is going to prison, sending her into a likely lifetime of destitution and bitterness?

As a director, this project is probably the largest scope that Brad Furman has tackled. It has a lot of moving parts and for the majority, he keeps everything together. He attempts some slick directorial maneuvers, trying to show off a little, I think. Sometimes it pays off as when a tracking shot nails everything just right and combines with the soundtrack and the tension of the moment to create a perfect scene, but there were other times where you get the feeling he’s pushing the bounds of what he can control. With cinematographer Joshua Reis, the film has this great washed-out look to it that makes it feel very much of its mid-80s time period.

While The Infiltrator is not exactly breaking new ground materially or in its execution, it still refreshingly attacks its subject from a perspective that maybe we haven’t seen enough. Where Donnie Brasco was more about the changes Joe Pistone went through psychologically, this is about how you avoid (or can’t) getting too close or maintaining the emotional distance necessary when it comes time to turn in your target. Then when the closing titles inform us of all the principal players’ convictions and prison sentences there’s a sense of gratification until you really put some thought into it and remember that this is just a game of Whack-a-Mole. And here we are thirty years later and this is still going on.

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