THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
As a story of an undercover operation, The Infiltrator doesn't break any new ground, but it's a meticulously-told true story that gives you a portrait of the complexities, big and small, that make such things risky. A special kind of person is needed for these jobs, which often require skirting legalities or ethics in exchange for perceived credibility with whomever the bust is targeting. There's also the inherent danger of trying to keep all the intricacies of the ruse in place. You'd probably have to be crazy to do this sort of work, although some people have proven very good at it.
Bob Mazur (Bryan Cranston) is one of them. He's a U.S. Customs agent working to halt the import of cocaine into Miami. Mazur gets the idea to stop following the drugs and start following the money to go up the chain of the Columbian drug trade. With the help of colleague Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), he sets up a phony money laundering business, offering his services to coke peddlers. Connections are made, and eventually they get close to Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), an important associate of notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar. When Mazur spontaneously improvises a non-existent fiancee for the “character” he's playing, his director (Amy Ryan) brings in another agent, Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), to fill the role. As simple as it seems, having an additional player on the team means many more falsified details to remember. It also forces Mazur to plunge deeper into his assumed identity.
The Infiltrator takes the viewer step-by-step through the sting that brought down Escobar, showing how Mazur and company put their ruse in place, create the illusion that it's real by bending rules and/or taking advantage of money-hungry banks, and use one connection to get to the next person higher up. The best part of the movie is the suspenseful finale, where the bust is brought to a close in a rather ingenious fashion that catches its targets completely off guard.
Through it all, Mazur and Kathy have to pretend to be deeply in love, even though he is happily married to wife Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey). Much of the sting's success rests on them seeming like a real couple. They befriend Alciano and his wife Gloria (Elena Anaya) to add legitimacy, a development that ends up taking a toll once Kathy realizes the woman she has come to know and like is going to end up a victim in it all. If anything, The Infiltrator could have gone even deeper with this idea. We're told this is Kathy's first undercover operation, yet she automatically seems self-assured. It would have been captivating to see more of the ethical dilemmas she faces as she carries out an assignment that requires duplicity.
Kruger is outstanding nonetheless, as is Bryan Cranston. He's become one of the most engaging actors around, capable of projecting intensity and vulnerability at the same time. That's a crucial asset in playing the role of Bob Mazur. Cranston shows how the character is fiercely committed to pulling off the sting, but also acutely aware of the risks, both professional and personal. Following his Oscar-nominated turn in last year's Trumbo, he's definitely on a roll with his big screen choices.
It wouldn't be fair to say The Infiltrator is confusing. For a complex story, director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) and writer Ellen Brown Furman always make it clear what's happening in a broad, overall sense. However, some of the smaller details are occasionally a little fuzzy. Understanding who all the minor characters are and how certain people are connected to each other isn't always easy. It never reaches frustrating levels because, again, the big picture is there, but more clarity on these things would have made the film even stronger.
The Infiltrator stands alongside Denis Villeneuve's Sicario and Steven Soderbergh's Traffic as insightful looks at the various ways the drug war has been fought in our country. Combined, they show that, while progress has been made, true success has remained elusive. That can be a disheartening realization. Still, it's good to hear the stories of people like Bob Mazur, who were – and are – out there fighting. The Infiltrator pays him fine tribute. This is substantive, intelligent entertainment.
( out of four)
The Infiltrator is rated R for strong violence, language throughout, some sexual content and drug material. The running time is 2 hours and 7 minutes.
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