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Friday, July 15, 2016

The Infiltrator Review

"The Infiltrator" provides stealthy summer fun


There's a moment toward the end of "The Infiltrator" where a couple on the verge of exchanging their wedding vows is invited by the priest to survey the crowd of well-wishers gathered to share their happy moment.  The awkward trepidation on the couple's faces as they gaze into the audience is at odds with the setting but perfectly in keeping with the circumstances of the story, and it pays off in an unexpected laugh.  There's a number of such moments sprinkled throughout the film, thanks in large part to a smart screenplay that keeps the audience in the know without ever telegraphing plot points or needlessly underscoring details, while still springing enough surprises to be fresh and entertaining at every turn.


"The Infiltrator" tells the story of U.S. Customs agent Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston in yet another deft, perfectly-tuned performance) who in the mid-80s went undercover posing as a mob-affiliated money launderer in order to disrupt the illegal drug trade and expose those in the banking industry who partnered with and enabled super-wealthy international drug dealers.  The film plays like something of a hybrid of two other recent offerings, "American Hustle" and "Kill the Messenger".  All three are based on true accounts, which provides leeway for occasionally-outrageous story telling while still keeping things within the bounds of credibility.

"The Infiltrator" starts out feeling similar to "Messenger", a straightforward attempt to tell a story that soon proves convoluted enough to defy that approach, and it winds up in "Hustle" territory as outsized characters are introduced, plot twists pile up, and it's a wild ride to the end to see who makes it out alive. If you liked either or both of those films, you're likely to enjoy the heck out of "The Infiltrator".


It's a pleasure watching Mr. Cranston's work in the lead role. As Robert Mazur he's a seasoned undercover agent who sets up bad guys for the takedown, burns through fake identities, then goes home to his wife and kids and relaxes by the pool in their slightly seedy, cookie-cutter Florida apartment complex. He's injured in a sting operation and thus eligible for retirement, but of course he signs on for the proverbial "one last job" - and it's a doozy. Working with fellow agent Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), Mazur transforms into "Bob Musella", a high-rolling money launderer, and gets close to the bad guys in order to trace drug money back to the dealers who are smuggling drugs in from Central and South America and living the high life off the proceeds.


It's great fun to watch Mazur's transformation from drab family guy to slick and sleazy mob confidant, and Mr. Cranston plays it beautifully: he's expansive and indulgent as he gets to know his new contacts from the Sunshine State's underbelly, but there's always a hint of wariness to remind us that he's at constant risk of exposure, and one wrong move could get him killed. As Musella makes more connections and moves up the ladder the settings change, and so do the characters - suddenly he's talking business poolside in a "borrowed" mansion with drug kingpins, or making deals over drinks in sky-high penthouse apartments with elegant and well-dressed smugglers. To talk himself out of a tough spot Musella invents a fiancee and suddenly he's working with a partner, rookie agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), who proves to be a natural. They've got great chemistry, and the framework of planning their wedding proves to be the linchpin of the entire sting operation.


"The Infiltrator" tells a fascinating story - it's a crazily compelling peek into the lives of hustling criminals, the super-rich, and those who work as undercover agents - and what really sells it is the cast. Mr. Cranston, as already noted, is wonderfully adept at balancing emotional shifts in response to quick turns in the action, and he makes it clear that there's an emotional toll to be paid for immersing oneself in a world populated by violent characters with hair-trigger tempers and no compunction about killing first and asking questions later - or not at all. Ms. Kruger makes a wonderful partner in crime, easing herself effortlessly into the elegant, dizzying, high-finance criminal world by being just charming enough but never losing sight of their target.


Mr. Leguizamo is the edgiest of the trio; his Emir Abreu provides the initial setup (there's a brief, funny scene of Abreu and Mazur in a sunny graveyard, shopping among the headstones for their next undercover identities) and supplies much of the humor, but he's got Mazur's back all the way and there's a solidity and warmth to their friendship despite their occasional prickly bickering. Benjamin Bratt, who has aged into a surprisingly interesting performer, plays wealthy and sophisticated cocaine smuggler Roberto Alcaino, who develops a close friendship with Musella. Mr. Bratt's Alcaino seems innately regal despite his shady background, and there's a wistfulness in hearing him talk to Musella about loyalty, friendship, and family while knowing the truth about the relationship between the two and where he's likely headed as a result of trusting his new friend.

"The Infiltrator" has solid performers in smaller roles as well, so watch for Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) as the quintessential no-nonsense officer in command, Yul Vazquez (still recognizable from three hilarious walk-on appearances on "Seinfeld") as a kooky and dangerously unpredictable drug contact, and the irrepressible Olympia Dukakis as Mazur's Aunt Vicky, who provides a lecture on the importance of keeping up appearances and provides a demonstration when Mazur needs a boost in the undercover department.


"The Infiltrator" is a stealth entry in the fun summer movie category, and it's definitely worth checking out. It's suspenseful and surprisingly funny, and it provides an educational walk back through the bad old days of the Escobar drug dynasty while offering plenty of evidence that we were right to let certain 1980s fashion trends go (neon, anyone?). "The Infiltrator" is a must-see for fans of Bryan Cranston; and if you're not a fan before watching his work here, you will be afterward. And then you should go right out and pick up a copy of the "Breaking Bad" box set because, c'mon, where have you been??

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