6 out of 10
Bryan Cranston as Robert Mazur
Directed by Brad Furman
The Infiltrator Review:
There’s nothing wrong with wearing your influences on your sleeve as an artist. To a certain extent what we create is only as good our influences as they in large measure determine what kind of stories (or other art) we will actually make. What must be remembered is that this provides a starting point, not a road map; telling a coherent story is more than just mixing well-loved elements.
That’s particularly true in the crime story genre which, as much as it benefits from originality, is badly prone to mixing and matching favored elements. Take for instance the latest version of the lonely undercover cop, specifically Bob Mazur (Cranston) who is the best undercover cop US Customs has and who is about to face his greatest challenge.
During the mid-1980s, the US Drug War hit one of its early peaks fighting an influx of cocaine from the Medellin Cartel in Colombia. As US law enforcement’s frontline against the drug tide, it was Mazur’s job (The Infiltrator is based on the real Mazur’s book of the same name) to lie down with the dogs, at the risk of his own sense of identity and loyalty. To paraphrase Charlie Kaufman, ‘for more examples of this see every crime movie ever made.’
A familiar premise is not in and of itself a problem; many skilled directors have taken similar ideas and made unique and enjoyable films out of them, primarily by imprinting their own viewpoint and style on the subject. The trouble comes when an artist’s work becomes nothing but a pastiche of influences, a repetition of what the creator likes instead of a mode for developing a certain story or theme.
From the opening of The Infiltrator following Mazur in a continuous shot as he walks through a bowling alley, it becomes clear that director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) is going to have a hard time with that. Nearly every box of the undercover cop film is checked except for the cop becoming hooked on drugs or beginning an affair with a girl in the criminal organization. [Instead it’s his undercover partner (Kruger) he develops sparks with]. That’s because Mazur’s role, and the potentially unique take on the film, was much higher level than the average undercover drug dealer film. Pretending to be a made man in the Mafia, he convinced the Cartel to let him launder their money and developed unprecedented access to both the Cartel and its bankers.
And while Furman does focus on that, he also frequently flows back to the well-known (and well-covered) street dealer sections through the actions of Leguizamo’s adrenaline junkie undercover agent. It’s certainly more intense than the world of banks and money transfers Bob lives in, and generally easier to understand, which makes it potentially more interesting, but it’s also trite and clichéd, which is the landmine of traveling across such well-covered ground.
Nor is Furman particularly helped by Joshua Reis’s lenswork, which in attempting to ape a classic ’70s crime film look (despite The Infiltrator taking place in the ’80s), comes out muddled and ugly as he plays with different colors and highlights for different types of scenes. It’s an inadvertent visual analogue for the problems of the film itself.
If The Infiltrator has a saving grace, it’s that it proves what a good actor Cranston is. It’s one thing to be great when given the role of a lifetime, but even given a blank pastiche as a character he commands the screen, even when given hopelessly inane dialogue.
Furman’s best decisions are almost entirely in the cast, which he has filled with solid actors even in some of the smaller parts. Jason Isaacs and Michael Paré show up for a scene here or there, growl out their lines, and depart, but as small as it is, it floats some of the hoarier moments and makes them bearable. Leguizamo and Bratt (as notorious drug lord Roberto Alcaino) are notable standouts in particular, because from time to time they get to break out of their molds and act like human beings. It’s not enough to overcome The Infiltrator’s infatuation with its influences, but it makes some of the individual moments better than they perhaps should have been.
A filmmaker with a strong enough vision can overcome those problems to weld its pieces together in some sort of whole, but that is a high bar few individuals clear. More often the film and its maker are working against a stacked deck, resulting in a whole which is very much less than the sum of its parts.