Monday, July 25, 2016

'The Infiltrator' review

The timing of The Infiltrator is honestly kind of hilarious. A decade ago, this would have seemed like an innovative concept. The dad from Malcolm in the Middle in a drug thriller about Pablo Escobar? Wow, we haven't seen anything like that before! But in 2016, the idea of an Escobar movie with Bryan Cranston just isn't all that enticing. Cranston already dominated the drug genre with his iconic performance in Breaking Bad, and last year, Netflix's Narcos and star Wagner Moura gave us the definitive portrayal of Escobar, the infamous Colombian cartel leader. At this point, The Infiltrator feels almost like an afterthought, and there's very little excitement out there for director Brad Furman's film. Nonetheless, I can never turn down a good crime thriller, so my hopes were high for this one. It's debuting amid a sea of blockbusters, and to me, it seemed like a great counter programming idea.

But even with a lot of promise, The Infiltrator is a rather unsatisfying experience. It's American Hustle without the humor or suspense, Narcos without the dual-sided approach or dynamic performances. There's not even much to say about the film- it just doesn't work, plain and simple. Cranston is clearly trying very hard, but he never finds the heart and soul of Bob Mazur, which is sure to leave audiences disappointed. The film is choppy and unfocused, bouncing between stories with no real regard for an engrossing narrative or character development. Ultimately, with little suspense, bland storytelling, and an undercooked setup, not even the flashy style of The Infiltrator can save it from mediocrity.

Bob Mazur (Bryan Cranston) is an expert at conducting sting operations. He's gone undercover in pretty much every possible scenario, and he's great at lying his way through tough situations. After a bust goes slightly awry, Mazur is faced with two possibilities- he can retire, or he can help his government track down Pablo Escobar. It's 1985 and the drug problem in America is worse than ever. Addicted to the thrill of his job, Mazur choose the latter option, posing as Bob Mussella to gain entrance into the treacherous world of Pablo Escobar. With help from his partner, Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), and his fake fiance, Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), Bob will have to fight his way through the constant danger of the Colombian cocaine scene and face down some of the most fearsome men on the planet. But if he succeeds, the US has a chance to destroy the entire cartel.

I love crime movies, which I've noted on this site many times over the years. I love being immersed in a world of danger and violence, where compelling characters drive the action and every turn is unpredictable. Whether it's a classic tale of the brutal gangs of the 1800s, an Italian mafia epic, or a deep dive into the world of drug dealing, I'm in. I practically devoured Narcos, and whenever there's a new season of Fargo, I gear up for a few days of binge-watching. The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Departed, and Scarface are some of my favorite films. Hell, I was even one of the few people who really enjoyed Scott Cooper's Black Mass. If I had a favorite genre, this would probably be it.

So when I say that The Infiltrator is one of the dullest crime thrillers I've ever seen, I mean it. Everything about it is bland and tedious, with the sole exception of the color and visual look of the film. Brad Furman (best known for The Lincoln Lawyer and Runner Runner) loves his bright, splashy colors, and The Infiltrator is practically drenched in a grainy, acidic 1980's sheen that clearly takes a lot of inspiration from Scarface. This film is lacking a lot of things, but there's visual imagination to spare. And yet, none of that means anything when you have a film that fails to ever engage its audience. Scenes happen, plot threads are set up, characters are established, and the movie goes absolutely nowhere.

The Infiltrator never has a sense of energy or narrative drive. There's nothing pushing this movie forward. Individual scenes prove to be fascinating, but they don't coalesce into anything. They just kinda sit there on the screen, almost like the filmmakers are waiting for the audience to put the pieces together and entertain themselves. The Infiltrator feels like it's trying to be a procedural at times, but if that was the goal of the director and screenwriter, they kinda forgot the procedure aspect of that genre. Nothing ever builds or escalates. The drama is heightened by a strange visual cue or a "shocking" line of dialogue, and then before anybody can feel any sense of danger, the suspense dissipates.

The characters and performances certainly don't help matters much. Bryan Cranston isn't bad in the film- he makes Mazur about as compelling as humanly possible. Unfortunately for him, Cranston is working with a half-baked character, a man with a conflicted, messed-up psyche that the film seems reluctant to delve into. Cranston is good at being slick and looking scared, but Mazur proves to be fairly uninteresting. The same can be said for Leguizamo's Emir Abreu, who seems to exist solely for comic relief. Diane Kruger's Kathy Ertz is also cripplingly under-developed, lacking any genuine character arc or any real reason to be in the film. Benjamin Bratt, Amy Ryan, and Jason Isaacs all make supporting appearances and also fail to be compelling, instead settling for one-note stock characters (Isaacs' role must have been severely cut in post).

The ultimate problem that The Infiltrator faces is that nobody seems to know what story they're telling, or more importantly, why they're telling it. There's an overarching goal of catching Escobar and his associates that drives Mazur, Abreu, and Ertz, but the film never has any inkling of an idea of how to get to that endpoint. At different points during the movie, Furman seems to stage the events of the film as either a heist movie, a gripping, realistic crime thriller, or an intense character drama about the impact of the undercover business. It's hard to get attached to any of this, and it's even harder to follow as Furman jumps from the main story to a jumbled mess of subplots and side stories. Individual moments and sequences work on their own (I liked how the finale works as an inversion of the classic wedding scene in The Godfather), but when put together, it makes for a choppy and flat experience.

The Infiltrator should be so much better. Usually that's an excuse for a dumb movie that should never have been made in the first place, but here, it's a legitimate point. There is a good story buried within the tedium of The Infiltrator, and in the hands of a better director and screenwriter, this would have been a great film. But in its current state, this messy drug thriller is hindered by a scattered plot, flat characters, and a severe lack of dramatic momentum. The second season of Narcos is only five weeks away. Rewatch season 1 if you need a Pablo Escobar fix, but just don't drop any cash on this sluggish drama.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C-                                             (4.9/10)

Image Credits: Screen Rant, Variety, Indiewire, Joblo

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