“The Infiltrator” Review

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The Infiltrator (2016)

The 1980s. A federal agent Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) works as an undercover in a notorious drug trafficking ring established by Pablo Escobar. Robert Mazur is now influential and charismatic Bob Musella who operates alongside two other undercover agents: his “fiancée” Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger) and best friend Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo). However, in reality, Robert is also a devoted family man, raising two children, with his wife Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey). This movie explores the unreal day-to-day life of an undercover agent who faces grave dangers every day, and all for the chance to secure convictions of the most notorious drug lords in the country. “The Infiltrator” is a very engaging, well-acted movie that goes in some depth in its portrayal of an undercover life, and along the way, distinguishes itself from other drug trafficking/undercover cop movies by being “authentic” in its story progression and low-key when it comes to action sequences and special effects. 

Many people compare “The Infiltrator” with a TV series “Breaking Bad” because both movies star Bryan Cranston, and both movies start with a seemingly law-abiding citizen who plunges into the world of crime, but the comparison is unhelpful. “The Infiltrator” is more of “Donnie Brasco” (1997)/“The Departed” (2006) meets “Blow” (2001). True, “The Infiltrator” shares a lot with the above mentioned movies, and does not go beyond what had already been shown, such as the double-life of an undercover agent, the smuggling of drugs across borders and the final “betrayals” leading to convictions. However, “The Infiltrator” does not aspire to be anything truly original. It aspires to be an entertaining, interesting, well-acted thriller, and the movie succeeds in that. “Donnie Brasco” is a film based on the real life story of Joseph D. Pistone who infiltrated mafia in New York in 1970s; “The Departed” remakes the 2002 film “Internal Affairs”; and “Blow” tells the story of a cocaine smuggler George Jung. But, if “Donnie Brasco” borders on boredom, and “The Departed” has a too starry performance and a fantastical story to focus on realism, “The Infiltrator” provides a refreshing break because the movie is not an “in-your-face” undercover cop movie packed with meaningless action, but a “slow-burning”, intelligent film which will keep you guessing until the very end. It is not a perfect film: more could have been done with the editing and script, and the movie is undoubtedly too long, but it is also very interesting to watch. The film’s ending is predictable and unimaginative, but this only adds to the realism of the picture. One of the “innovations” of the movie is surely the multiple agents’ undercover mission. This has been done before on screen, but still provides for a nice break from the above mentioned movies. Diane Kruger as Kathy Ertz and John Leguizamo as Emir Abreu are very good as the other undercover agents working alongside  the main character, playing off Mazur/Musella’s seriousness, and together making an unforgettable team. 

It is also not that “The Infiltrator” is without action. On the contrary, there are many action scenes, but, because of the nature of the movie, these scenes are kept low-key and modest, even though the tension is maintained throughout. The audience constantly feels like they are watching something they should not be seeing, and the “thrill” lies also in that. From the very first scenes we are intrigued. The movie opens up with Robert Mazur in the midst of one of his undercover missions. Mazur then has an idea: why don’t the federal agencies follow the money, instead of the drugs? That way, the government will have a chance to get closer to the real “mob” behind all the illegal action, and Robert Mazur is certainly the man for the job alongside his friend and made-up “fiancée”. This is also not a film about Pablo Escobar, as Mazur only manages to get as close to the drug lord as passing him briefly in a vestibule. For the most recent Pablo Escobar movie, see “Escobar: Paradise Lost” (2014). “The Infiltrator” is excitingly thrilling throughout, but two scenes stand out way above the rest: one of them is where Mazur is celebrating a wedding anniversary with his wife only to meet one of the bad guys: Mazur thinks quick on his feet, naming his wife his secretary, telling that he is there to celebrate her birthday, and then mistreating the waiter for bringing the wrong cake. Another scene involves one of the bad guys spotting Mazur’s undercover recording device in his briefcase. These scenes are so well-done, they are like jewels of the movie, and they really tell what this movie is all about: a man leading a double life, which is so dangerous he does not know whether he would still be breathing seconds to come.

Part of the film’s appeal is Bryan Cranston in the role of Robert Mazur/Bob Musella. He fits very well in the role of a man who lives two closely intertwined lives, and his double life is clearly hectic: at one point he is taken off a primary school parents’ meeting to attend to an undercover surveillance operation, and in another scene his young daughter notices that the parcel he was delivered is leaking blood; all these sequences (and many similar ones) are very compelling. Mazur’s ordinary life is spiralling out of control, and the little delays, the little talks, and the little silences in the movie speak volumes. Cranston knows how to play a likeable character whose mere presence could say “power” – but that power is not “showy”, “in-your-face” power, but hidden and enticing in itself, and in his best suit Cranston’s Musella is irresistible. Cranston’s Mazur is also sympathetic. Mazur is told to “play with the mob”, “snort cocaine with the mob”, “f*** with the mob” to be the mob, and his Musella does an excellent imitation of all of the above. Despite all that, the audience never doubts one second that what they see in Mazur is the man of morals or “one of us”, who stays faithful to his wife despite the temptations and the absolute pressure to commit immoral actions to stay alive. Part of the drama of the movie is also in that: in a man who is torn between conflicting moral issues, and in a question of how far a man is prepared to go and act out of character to the detriment of others. What we see in Mazur is also what the bad guys in the movie partly see in him, and that is why they begin trusting him as they would their dearest of friends. It is just that easy to.

Although “The Infiltrator” does not break any new grounds and suffers from some plot confusion, these defects could be easily overlooked. The Infiltrator never tries to “show off”, but has a purpose of staying both realistic and entertaining throughout. It is well-acted and clever; a real treat for the fans of drug trafficking/undercover operations movies who would love Cranston’s performance and the slow-evolving, tense atmosphere. 8/10

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3 Responses to “The Infiltrator” Review

  1. Artem says:

    It happened that I watched “Infiltrator” last weekend. It struck me as a decent flick, but not outstanding one. The actors play well enough to make us believe their story, but don’t deliver anything special. It’s like they do everything by the book and not more than they are paid for. Don’t go over the top here, don’t make needless moves there. There’re several moments where the movie could go much more harder. Several scenes make an impression of being underdone in words of drama and pressure.

    Moreover, there’re some plot difficulties that gave me a hard time to grasp. For instance, the moment they are in club, dancing. And Ospina comes to Mazur and says him: “I know, I know who the fk you are, Bob”. And that moment someone shoots him dead. Who it was? Why one of the main mafia henchmen was shot with no aftermath for the Mazur?

    Or other moment when he visits the restaurant with his wife and bumps into one of the mobsters. It doesn’t look persuadable that you can work undercover, have a double identity, and then just came home after the work, visit usual places with your family. Agents who work like that, use to completely abandon their families, they live outside for months if not years, they don’t support contacts with their close ones and friends. In the story of “Infiltrator” they show us some “celebrity” lifestyle living by an undercover agent and completely dumb mafia bosses, who don’t even try to set a surveillance and dig into some due-diligence investigation before they tell Mazur their dirty secrets. It looks like everyone believes in his words only, and have no problem with knowing nothing of his previous deeds. It’s very hard to believe, to say the least. People who work undercover are always ready to be observed and prove their story with 1000 different ways to be able to get closer to the target. It’s about hard pressure and mental disorders. Mazur comes home every (or almost every) night, visits his wife and kid and then goes to work again. It’s ridiculous.

    And the most interesting part of the story didn’t get any of the attention from the director. It’s a mental disorder that many of undercover agents use to have with time. They can mix up their legend with their real identity, have problems with sleep, PTSD. Eventually they make friends among the mobsters who becomes hard to “betray” when the time comes. Mazur comes close to Robert Alcaino (Escobar’s right hand in the region) and there’s some real frienship emerging between the two. In the end they feel a little bit bad for taking Robert over to the cops. I think this scene is made too weak. It could be a real drama here, but they just don’t use the possibility. They could have made something more with that idea – you became friends with a drug-lord and his wife. Why don’t we see some difficult choices, some problems, some internal conflict? They could have squeezed some tears of us! But they didn’t want to work harder on that.

    I wouldn’t give this movie 8 out of 10 points after all. Maybe 6 on my own scale)). The “Infiltrator” was entertaining, it was quality done in general with all actors made their part; but the lack of specifics, shortage of drama together with a bunch of unbelievable “it’s-just-a-movie” moments reduced the general impression delivered by the work.

    P.S. Thanks for the review, Di.

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Well, I saw this movie quite differently from you. I guess it is exactly the shortage of drama which I loved here, and also the lack of “big movie” events. It just watches evenly with only two scenes standing out. On that basis it did feel special to me. They could have done an emphasis on PTSD or confusion, but then it would have been a different movie. I read the biography of the infamous J. D. Pistone, and am aware of all the intricacies of the real undercover operation, but I just thought if they did introduce too many dramatic undertones and too much psychology into this film they would have somehow spoiled it and made it like any other action film. Enjoyed reading your thoughts on the movie 🙂
      P.S. Having said that, I have to admit that I would not have given this movie anything above 6/10 if Cranston wasn’t in the lead. I think he brought a lot to the film.

      • Artem says:

        Bryan Cranston is a very decent actor, I agree. Most of the actors played their parts pretty well here. I can’t really complain on anyone of them, haha)).

        By the way, I don’t watch many criminal stories usually. The last one was “Sicario” that I believe you wrote about here. A great, great work. And couple of years ago there was a very decent TV-show “Gang Related”, but it was, unfortunately, closed after the 1st season. A lot of storylines, a lot of interesting characters. Bad guys turns not so bad, everyone hides a dirty secret and so on. I enjoyed it much. But besides that I can’t say I use to watch criminal dramas every day – only the most solid stories like “Departed”, “Lawless” and some Al Pacino+Robert De Niro old ones. But generally I’m not a big fan of mobsters)))

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