The larger problem is that no one has bothered to assemble the scenes into an interesting story.
After a successful stint playing a sweet but somewhat ineffectual dad on Malcolm in the Middle, Bryan Cranston achieved breakout success as a sweet but somewhat ineffectual dad who goes over to the dark side in Breaking Bad. There’s nothing Hollywood loves more than replicating a successful formula, and that’s pretty much what you get with The Infiltrator, which has Cranston playing a by-the-rules customs agent and suburban dad who decides to walk on the wild side and ends up bringing down Pablo Escobar and the Bank of Commerce and Credit International.
The Infiltrator is based on the autobiography of Robert Mazur, the character played by Cranston. I can’t say how closely the screenplay by Ellen Brown Furman sticks to the real events of Mazur’s career, nor how closely Cranston’s performance comes to capturing Mazur’s character, but I can say this—for a true-to-life story involving international intrigue and immense sums of money, to say nothing of drugs and violence and beautiful women, the result is a remarkably dull movie. One problem is that Furman gives away a key piece of information in the opening scene, which robs the film of one source of tension, but that’s not the only problem with The Infiltrator.
It’s a good thing that title cards provide the historical context for this film, because otherwise you could be forgiven for wondering if Furman selected some typical scenes from cop shows, reshot them with his case, then edited them into a two-hour film. You’ve got the bad guy hiding just out of sight, the chase scene through a colorful location, the blood splatter of a matter-of-fact execution, the procedural detail, the moment of regret when our hero realizes he has to bring down someone he has grown to like, the arguments between a pair of chalk-and-cheese partners, and a whole lot more that you’ve seen many times before. The individual scenes aren’t bad, although most of them don’t rise above the level of workmanlike; the larger problem is that no one has bothered to assemble the scenes into an interesting story.
Mazur (Cranston) develops the alter ego “Bob Musella” as part of his undercover work for the Customs Service, where he works on drug cases. Unlike his partner, Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo, who increases the liveliness quotient tenfold every time he’s on screen), who loves action and drama, Mazur is a stiff who thinks that following rules will keep him safe. Nonetheless, one day Mazur has a breakthrough idea: instead of focusing on intercepting shipments of drugs and busting small-time dealers, they should follow the money, because that’s what will lead them to the guys at the top.
It’s a good but hardly original insight, although for a rule-bound guy working in a rule-bound department it’s a bit more remarkable. The Musella persona is a silk-suited money-launderer, offering his services to people with large amounts of ill-gotten cash. In that role, with the assistance of an overly-obvious recording device, he works his way up the drug-smuggling food chain and amasses evidence against the big guys (the closing title card informs us that his work led to over 100 indictments of drug lords and corrupt bankers). This path is not without its bumps, of course: for instance, after begging off a lap dance by claiming that he is engaged, he has to produce a fiancé to back up his story. That’s a lucky break for us, because it gives us Diane Kruger playing the role of Kathy Ertz, a young agent who, despite her lack of undercover experience, is already much better at it than Mazur. (The closing title cards inform us that she never went undercover again, while he continued with a successful career, an outcome which does seem like it begs further explanation.)
Olympia Dukakis makes two very brief screen appearances as Mazur’s Aunt Vicky, who both establishes her character as a real person and moves the story forward in about half no time. Her most telling moment is when she tells Mazur, who is content to be adequate in his job and have the standard-issue nice suburban home and family, that he should demand more of himself: “Don’t be Bobby Loser. Be Bobby Somebody.” Furman is all about surface, not psychology, so that’s as close as we ever get to exploring a character’s motivation, but the real point is that because Dukakis says it, it’s memorable.
The Infiltrator even looks like a TV show. Cinematographer Joshua Reis sticks mostly to medium and close shots (he loves to cut off characters at the forehead), with some establishing shots (it’s not Paris if you don’t see the Eiffel Tower) and wide shots tacked because everyone knows movies have to have them. The camera moves are also obvious and repetitive, with the dolly-in being the most egregiously overused (cinematography 101—don’t move the camera without purpose). There are a few action sequences, but they’re straight out of the TV playbook, and several nightclub scenes that look exactly like a million other nightclub scenes. The result is not a terrible movie, but one that is entirely ordinary, and which may find its natural home on VOD, so you can watch it on the little screen in the comfort of your home. | Sarah Boslaugh