Synopsis – A U.S. Customs official uncovers a money laundering scheme involving Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
My Take – The war on drugs has become a bit of a punch line in the real world, but has proved to be fertile ground for film-making: Sicario (2015), American Hustle (2013), and Traffic (2000). Additionally, the popular Netflix show “Narcos” takes on the same Medellin drug cartel as this latest from director Brad Furman. As you have probably noted, the connection with Pablo Escobar is played up in the film’s marketing materials. The reality is that Escobar is perhaps hovering over the film in spirit, but the film in fact is a lot more about what happened with BCCI (the UK’s Bank of Credit and Commerce International), the 7th largest private bank at that time. Adapted from Robert Mazur‘s book The Infiltrator: My Secret Life Inside the Dirty Banks Behind Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel, this film is based on a true story that took place in the 1980’s. A US customs special agent went undercover to put a stop to Pablo Escobar‘s Columbian drug cartel, or at least try to slow it down during a time when Ronald Reagan was the U.S President and his wife Nancy was just saying ‘No’ to drugs. And as you might have guessed it, the film has many great moments, and is tense almost from the get-go. This is a gripping, intelligent, fast-paced cops-and- robbers film with a dream cast and high production values. Sure, it’s not the best film out there, but it’s a solid genre base hit and entertaining. The film managed to keep me on the edge of the seat for almost the entire film.
The story follows Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston), a U.S. Customs operative in the 80’s where the Colombian drug trade headed by Pablo Escobar was thriving. When Mazur realizes the traditional method of chasing the drugs isn’t working, he decides the age-old idiom “follow the money” might be a better approach. Despite given the option of retiring and staying at home with his wife Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) and kids, Mazur decides to go undercover as Bob Musella, a high-level businessman who can help the cartel launder its drug money. As Musella, he gets deep into that world through contacts established by his also undercover partner Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), gets some credibility and important advice from convict Alexander Biscuiti (Joseph Gilgun), who is sprung from prison to help out, and even from his gutsy, but morally ambiguous aunt (Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis). Also along for the ride (and playing a major role in the operation) is Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), on her first deep cover mission, playing the role of Musella’s fiancé, partly because of a noble but dangerous mistake by Musella himself. This takes him inside the world of international money laundering, and he learns that banks and governments are quite dependent on this huge business of drug money movement. There are specific groups of people here: the government agencies, the small task force, the corrupt (and appreciative) bankers, the various levels within the cartel, and even Mazur’s family, all these forces intertwine to make life difficult for Mazur and his team, and provide a glimpse into the complexities of undercover work. The big surprise isn’t even him having to lie and infiltrate this organization but having to establish relationships and lie because in doing so he learns about them on a personal level and although these are criminals whom have committed some really horrible crimes there’s another side to them mostly just that they’re human and do this to protect and provide for their families as much as Mazur is trying to do for his. Mazur gets into the league with these guys and begins infiltrating and finding out as much as he can about them and their operation but when it comes down to busting them can he actually go along with it? This is an engaging and entertaining true story which sticks close to the truth. Screenwriter Ellen Sue Brown and director Brad Furman take a few understandable liberties with the actual story in order to make their film clear and cohesive, but they manage to make an actual international banking scandal from the 1980s interesting and they don’t waste the time of audience with unnecessary exposition. The climactic scene is fabricated, but is fairly close to what happened in the operation and makes for a terrific closing to the story. This crime biography is unique in the way that it balances the inherent deceptions in undercover work — fooling crooks into doing things that will result in their imprisonment — with how close the lawman-and-criminal relationship can become, including friendship and respect. That’s an intriguing element to show, but also a hollow one when taking great pains to show how an Escobar lieutenant is a “regular family man” who likes to cook for his wife and daughter without also showing such detail in how he orders murders and leaves other families’ children as orphans. He and Ertz become close with one of Escobar’s higher-ups, Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), and they form a friendship potentially hazardous to the operation’s fragile subterfuge. Director Brad Furman also tries to spice things up with a dusting of sexual tension between Mazur and his cover girl (will they or won’t they?); there’s also a feely bromance with Benjamin Bratt, who plays the gleaming, wholesome gentleman of the drug trade. Mazur and Ertz form earnest friendships with Bratt and his family, hinting that when the time comes it might be hard for Mazur to sell his pals down the river.
There are a couple of standout scenes – one involving chicken and voodoo, and another with a briefcase mishap, but my favorite is the Happy Anniversary cake scene in the restaurant where Mazur flashes his alter-ego Musella for his real wife to see and she is understandably stunned. This film is a character study of a man who goes undercover with the Pablo Escobar drug cartel and develops relationships/friendships with these bad guys in order to bring them down. The real conflict in this film is not the action, but rather, the reaction of Mazur – will he remember that he is just playing a role to bring down the bad guys, or will he lose himself in the role and the relationships and become a bad guy himself? There are a few faults here of course. Firstly, the film doesn’t offer any innovations on cops-and-robbers. Many other films have treated South American drug kingpins and undercover agents. In the coming years, it is going to be a little difficult to separate this one from its counterparts with similar themes. Also, the film never asks the question that must be ramming through the viewer’s brain. “Why the heck are we doing this? Why are we spending so much money trying to prevent drug addicts from doing what they are going to do, anyway? Why are we allowing criminal gangs, who are as violent and sadistic and without conscience as any terrorist group, to have so much sway? Why don’t we legalize and regulate and tax drugs and let Darwinian laws take their course with the addict population? Why don’t we let Uncle Sam reap the profit of human weakness, rather than criminals?” This film unlike the 2000 Oscar winning film “Traffic,” never asks that question. The film isn’t perfect but when it is good it is really good. Director Brad Furman‘s other memorable effort, 2011’s “The Lincoln Lawyer,” was similarly a boilerplate script elevated by a charismatic turn, from Matthew McConaughey. There are so many interesting aspects about the drug war that haven’t been shown this centrally on film before – the white collar financial type undercover DEA operation and the money laundering aspect. This film is timely and relevant. It’s fascinating to see the money laundering by BCCI. Much of that enjoyment hinges on the performance of Bryan Cranston. We follow him as he dives deep into this criminal organization. Cranston is in about 90% of the scenes of this film, so his performance better be strong or this will be one long film, indeed. Fortunately for us, his performance is better than strong. He continues his string of fascinating/watchable performances and he more than anchors this film and makes it worth watching. Bryan Cranston is not your typical film star, although he seems like it. Underneath the cool-high-school-dad exterior, there’s an actor of great depth and unexpected power. You’ll know it when you see a scene involving his character, said character’s wife, and a restaurant on their anniversary dinner. Cranston seems to have benefited during his years as Walter ‘Heisenberg’ White on TV’s Breaking Bad. And it has contributed greatly in this biographical crime thriller, about as straightforward and predictable as a stab in the gut. Ably assisting here is a strong supporting cast – Amy Ryan, Jason Isaacs, Benjamin Bratt, and Olympia Dukakis are very likable. John Leguizamo as Mazur’s partner, Emir Abreu is terrific. The best performance I’ve seen from him in quite some time. Diane Kruger shines as a DEA undercover agent posing as his fiancé. She is convincing, watchable and beautiful. She needs more feature film roles. On the whole, ‘The Infiltrator’ may not be best of breed, but it’s engaging, atmospheric, nicely shot, and is carried by a Bryan Cranston performance so good that its enjoyable to watch him on the other side of the law.
Directed – Brad Furman
Rated – R
Run Time – 127 minutes