UK Release Date: 16th September 2016
Runtime: 127 minutes
Director: Brad Furman
Writer: Ellen Brown Furman
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Kruger, John Leguizamo, Benjamin Bratt, Juliet Aubrey, Amy Ryan, Joe Gilgun
Synopsis: An experienced customs official goes deep undercover as a money launderer in order to get close to the top figures in Pablo Escobar’s dominant drug cartel, hoping for one big score to end his career.
The endless ‘war on drugs’ being fought in America has provided rich pickings for cinema. To date, the definitive take on the issue is Steven Soderbergh‘s sprawling masterpiece Traffic, but Denis Villeneuve provided an excellent addition to the genre with last year’s Sicario. Brad Furman is the latest filmmaker to have a crack at the genre, with the ever-reliable Bryan Cranston in the leading role. The Infiltrator marries the drug war thriller with the undercover cop movie and, in the process, finds Cranston what is almost certainly his best cinematic role to date.
Cranston plays experienced customs official Robert Mazur, who goes deep undercover with his colleague Emir (John Leguizamo) in order to snare Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt) – a key figure in Pablo Escobar’s violent cartel. A slip-up in establishing his undercover persona leaves Mazur in need of a fiancee, so his boss (Amy Ryan) enlists rookie agent Kathy (Diane Kruger) to join him in the field. This threatens to damage Mazur’s relationship with his wife Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey).
The Infiltrator is a film that is perfectly content to simply walk the well-trodden path of the undercover thriller. Furman, last seen at the helm of risible arms dealing tale Runner Runner, is on very safe ground with this rather basic story, which sees Cranston’s veteran undercover worker battling all of the usual risks that fans of these movies will expect, from near-misses in which secret identities are almost revealed to the issues with getting a little too close to the people that are in the government crosshairs.
The film is lifted shoulder high out of the mire of mediocrity by Cranston, who has finally found a big screen persona worthy of his considerable acting heft. His performance constantly finds depth in the occasionally rather listless script, which finds little for the likes of Leguizamo and Joe Gilgun to do in roles that a better film would’ve found time to develop. Diane Kruger, however, is the true star of The Infiltrator giving a performance that radiates emotion and goes beyond the traditional rookie archetypes to suggest an intelligent character occasionally undone by her own inexperience.
It’s a shame that the script, from Furman’s mother Ellen, never evolves beyond the standard clichés and tropes of its genre. The film’s running time allows real narrative breathing room as the rather stately plot plays out, but the script never really digs into the heart of the characters, despite threatening to at regular intervals. It’s as if The Infiltrator is so devoted to slotting into the drug war canon that it can’t stomach even the slightest diversion to mark it out as something special. It certainly doesn’t even have half of the cinematic invention that made Traffic such an instant classic.
There is, however, plenty of tension to The Infiltrator, which ekes every drop of suspense out of its centrepiece scenes. Every time the characters’ cover gets close to being blown, Furman does a tremendous job of creating genuine fear that they might be rumbled. The film doesn’t necessarily always work, but it excels as a basic thriller that ticks all of the right boxes and knows how to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
Pop or Poop?
Brad Furman doesn’t shoot for the stars with The Infiltrator, but the film is a solid, if unremarkable, undercover thriller helped along by a compelling context and strong performances across its ensemble cast. Cranston and Kruger are excellent and the likes of John Leguizamo do what they can with underwritten roles.
It might be perfectly clear from the start where The Infiltrator is going and it certainly takes its time getting there, but there’s more than enough to enjoy along the way.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.