The Infiltrator (2016) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Follow the money

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A real-life story which inspired “The Infiltrator” is an interesting tale worthwhile to be told. Using that inexorable connection between crime and money, American federal agents attempted to infiltrate into the money laundering network of Pablo Escobar’s infamous Columbian drug cartel in the 1980s, and their highly risky undercover operation eventually succeeded in throwing a major blow to Escobar’s criminal business. However, the movie does not have enough things to distinguish itself from other similar police procedural movies such as “Miami Vice” (2006), and the overall result is deficient in style and personality despite the diligent work from its cast members.

Its hero is Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston), a U.S. Customs and drug enforcement agent who was a key participant of that operation. The opening sequence shows him in the middle of his latest undercover operation at a local bowling alley in Tampa, Florida. His mission could be ruined due to an unexpected technical problem inside his clothes, but Mazur manages to hide that problem in front of his unsuspecting target, and the mission is finally accomplished thanks to that.

While looking for any possible way of approaching closer to Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel, Mazur gets one clever idea; rather than pursuing the cartel’s drug traffic as before, they should go after its money laundering process instead. His fellow undercover agent Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) happens to have an informer who can lead them to cartel members, and then everything is quickly set up for their new undercover operation. With his seemingly credible fake background and appearance prepared in advance, Mazur becomes a successful financial business named Bob Musella, and he soon comes to befriend several cartel members who can unwittingly help his infiltration.

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The most entertaining part of the movie comes from how Mazur presents himself as a rich guy venal and opportunistic enough to launder any dirty money with no qualms about that. He begins to deal with a big international bank which has handled many shady financial transactions around the world behind its respectable façade, and the executives of the bank do not mind even when their latest big client frankly tells them why he wants their service. Besides impressing his cartel associates enough with his fake show of wealth and luxury, Mazur also gets extra criminal authenticity from Dominic (Joe Gilgun), a criminal who has served his time in prison thanks to Mazur but agrees to cooperate with him anyway as his driver.

Still, he always has to be careful for gaining more trust from the cartel, and it turns out that he needs to do more than he thought for maintaining his cover. At one point, one of his cartel associates treats him to a prostitute, but Mazur does not want her because he is a married guy with two kids. He lies that he cannot accept this ‘gift’ due to his recent engagement, so now he has no choice but to be accompanied with a young female agent who is going to be his ‘fiancée’. As he spends more time on his undercover operation, his wife Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) naturally becomes frustrated, and then she gets an unpleasant glimpse of her husband’s ongoing work when they happen to encounter a cartel member by coincidence.

The adapted screenplay by Ellen Brown Furman, which is based on Mazur’s memoir of the same name, tries to juggle many other things besides the aforementioned ones, but it fails to generate enough tension or interest to hold our attention, and we are confused at times as its plot merely hops from one point to another without much narrative momentum. In case of a subplot involved with CIA, it only ends up being no more than a minor footnote in the story, and so does that amusing irony associated with the hypocrisy of the US government during that time, which pushed the War on Drug on the surface but indirectly helped drug cartels as mentioned before the end credits. As the story trudges toward the expected ending, it becomes more predictable, and even a supposedly dramatic scene involved with a fake wedding ceremony somehow feels lackluster despite its inherent absurdity.

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For Bryan Cranston, his role is surely a nice opportunity to play someone a lot different from his criminal character in acclaimed TV series “Breaking Bad”. Although his other recent performance in HBO TV movie “All the Way” (2016) is more compelling and interesting to watch, Cranston’s measured performance ably carries the movie, and he deftly handles several scenes where Mazur must keep his disguise intact around potential dangers.

Some of the supporting performers surrounding Cranston give solid performances to appreciate. John Leguizamo is suitably volatile in contrast to Cranston, and Diane Kruger brings considerable spirit into her agent character who turns out to be more resourceful and caring than expected. Benjamin Bratt is slick and confident as a high-level cartel member who comes to trust and like his new associate more than Mazur wants, and Joe Gilgun, a British actor who was one of memorable characters in “This is England” (2006), holds his own small place as a guy who comes to form an unlikely relationship with Mazur. In case of Amy Ryan, Said Taghmaoui, and Juliet Aubrey, they are unfortunately wasted in their respective thankless roles, and it is too bad that we do not get enough of Olympia Dukakis, who is simply delightful during her brief appearance as Mazur’s old but spunky aunt.

The director Brad Furman, who is incidentally Ellen Brown Furman’s son, previously directed “The Lincoln Lawyer” (2011). That movie was basically your average crime mystery legal drama, but it was filled with colorful personality thanks to the enjoyable performances from Matthew McConaughey and its other cast members, and that was the main reason I recently revisited it just for fun. Compared to that, “The Infiltrator” is merely plain and uncharacteristic without much lingering impression, and I doubt whether I will ever watch it again.

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