July 14, 2016
For undercover agents within the U.S. Customs Department, their day starts as simply as everyone else’s, but can quickly devolve into a series of life-or-death choices in a blink. Bringing one story of intrigue and espionage to light is director Brad Furman’s adaptation of U.S. Customs Agent Robert Mazur’s memoir The Infiltrator, featuring Bryan Cranston in the lead role.
The Infiltrator takes us through the high-wire act that a small undercover team must manage in order to dismantle the money laundering machine fueling Pablo Escobar’s cocaine business in the 1980s. Lead by Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) and Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), these two Customs agents develop relationships from the bottom-up, carefully navigating the minefield of high-octane personalities that inhabit one of the largest drug trafficking networks in history.
The trailers make Furman’s adaptation look like a balls-to-the-wall action thriller and that would be the furthest thing from the truth. The Infiltrator is a slow burn; it builds tension by focusing on the relationships Mazur cultivates and maintains. By abandoning a more standard cinematic structure, the narrative within The Infiltrator feels more realistic and unpredictable. In a world of Jason Bourne and Mission: Impossible sagas, a story like this doesn’t sound appealing, but it delivers in a satisfying way.
The hardest task a character-driven story has, is to make the audience empathize with its characters and Furman finds a way to make us worry for the safety of both Mazur’s team and the drug dealers and bosses he comes to know intimately. Like Mazur, we are invited into their homes and into their lives. As such, we come to see them as living, breathing humans who acknowledge their choices in the world, not caricatures. The significance of this adds to the constant tension of the narrative, building to a bittersweet, gratifying finale.
Outside of Furman, the bulk of the work is laid on Bryan Cranston’s shoulders. Though most know him as from the AMC series Breaking Bad as The-One-Who-Knocks, Cranston has a storied history in film and television, which shows in his multifaceted performance as Mazur. The narrative requires him to exude vulnerability and power in near simultaneous moments, portraying a highly accomplished undercover officer as a full human. Cranston’s natural facial lines and creases are accentuated to assist in visually demonstrating the psychological toll of Mazur’s dual life. Helping to carry the load is John Leguizamo as Mazur’s partner Emir Abreu and Diane Kruger as Mazur’s undercover fiancée, Kathy Ertz. Gratefully, Lequizamo isn’t relegated to “funny man” status but is given ample opportunities to just how capable he is. Similarly, Kruger’s Kathy is not there for distraction or arm candy. Her role becomes just as significant as Mazur’s and her position is never downplayed. In an all-star cast, the only one underused is Amy Ryan as the Mazur’s supervisor, who appears briefly, speaks bluntly, and somehow manages to steal the spotlight from Cranston every time.
Credit must be given to Furman and his team for the exquisite recreation of the 1980s. The set design, wardrobe, accessories, along with the lighting, music, and shot arrangement make The Infiltrator feel like it was dug up from a vault, rather than shot in the present. Also, Furman uses music to enhance moments as a narrative tool to state what the characters can’t.
My singular (read: small) complaint with the film lies in the introduction. Whole scenes zip by at a distracting pace seemingly in an effort to get the story to a specific point so it can slow down and take its time. The gamble Furman takes by rushing the introduction does feel calculated and a touch dizzying, but once it slows, Furman enables the audience to learn as Mazur learns and connect with each member of his team as he does.
The Infiltrator’s slow pacing and focus on characters remove all doubt that this is grounded in reality. The story of Robert Mazur and his team is a truly remarkable one, clearly brought to life delicately by Brad Furman with as much respect as possible to the living and the dead making The Infiltrator a refreshing cinematic tale in a sea of summer spectacles.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5
Read our review of Ghostbusters