As an undercover crime thriller, Brad Furman’s The Infiltrator only barely works. If anything, it makes a life of crime look gloriously entertaining, aside from the occasional brutal murder that happens in your presence. Based on the true story of Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston), a U.S. customs agent who laundered millions in dirty money in order to ensnare high-ranking members of Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel, The Infiltrator often feels more akin to the bittersweet luxury of The Wolf of Wall Street than the ticking bomb framework of something like Infernal Affairs.
Justice must be served, but at what personal cost? The film feigns wanly toward larger political attitudes about corrupt drug wars and crooked systems, but it’s just as intoxicated by the promise of Olympic-sized swimming pools, deep sea pearls and bottle service at scuzzy clubs. Mazur may be in danger at every moment, puffing up his chest and sweet talking notoriously sadistic criminals, but the camera is far more interested in the gloss surrounding him than Mazur’s well-being.
As Mazur, Cranston is the platonic ideal for this character—an actor who plays out his internal process with scaling intensity and mounting body language. At any given moment in a conversation, Cranston is only seconds away from breaking—from betraying his created persona. The problem here is that Cranston’s performance rarely moves beyond the implication of danger. He’s constantly trying to sell his fears about his situation, but the film can’t follow suit.
He’s a witness to repeated acts of brutality—overzealous cronies get offed for getting too high during business deals—or invited to soirees that move from drunken to psychopathic in split seconds. But The Infiltrator smothers any genuine tension with pushy, ’80s-specific needle drops and trite metaphor exposition about the dangers of becoming too close with criminals.
Worse still, the dialogue attempts to condense color and exposition into short periods of time without allowing the plot to just bear out these details. In Furman’s breakout, The Lincoln Lawyer, Matthew McConaughey’s aw-shucks gravitas worked easily with the pedestrian platitudes of the script. There are only so many times that The Infiltrator can trip over lines about how it’s hard to keep your boots clean if you’re walking through the mud.
There’s a certain laziness to the main plot as well. Details are left confusingly unarticulated—particularly the status of an early goon, who it seems would have easily sabotaged Mazur’s cover. If anything, the film only pays attention to its undercover context when it’s relevant to the story. Otherwise, it’s mostly just a structural tool to put Mazur into a series of exciting scenarios.
Despite the failures of its script, The Infiltrator develops a fizzy watchability after its slack first third, especially as Mazur falls deeper and deeper into the inner circle of these charismatic criminals. The most propulsive scenes are less about moving the plot forward than the growing intimacy between Mazur and the criminals with whom he surrounds himself. A good portion of the film has more of a hang-out vibe than that of a thriller, as Mazur and his undercover wife, Kathy Ertz (an underused but welcome Diane Kruger) really dig into relationships with people like Robert Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt) and his wife (Elena Anaya).
There’s an occasionally distracting self-consciousness to the conversations, and the need to define their relationship to Escobar. The script rarely misses an opportunity for a glib joke relevant to the situation. But there’s also a surprising pathos to these relationships. After a cigar-chomping intro, Bratt manages to create a character who is both regal and relatable, and the wisecracking Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) convincingly struggles with the question of whether he’s doing the right thing.
The film seems enamored with these characters, honoring their personalities from a distance as the operation comes to a head, and their relationships are shown to be a sham. The Infiltrator isn’t brave enough to make this the ending, instead returning to characters we’re ostensibly supposed to care about. But its final message is less about Mazur’s triumph than the sadness of losing his fake life.
Director: Brad Furman
Writers: Ellen Sue Brown, based on Robert Mazur’s book
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Kruger, John Leguizamo, Joseph Gilgun, Benjamin Bratt, Amy Ryan
Release Date: July 13, 2016