The entertainment industry is experiencing a kind of romantic fascination with narco culture as of late – an affair that’s been plenty fruitful so far, with Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario standing out as one of last year’s best movies and Netflix having just confirmed Narcos for another two seasons. Director Brad Furman’s The Infiltrator comes around just in time to capitalise on the cultural interest in South American cartel violence, then. Based on real life events, this crime thriller tells the story of Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston), a U.S. Customs special agent who’s undercover work contributed to the take down of Pablo Escobar’s money-laundering organisation in the 1980s.
Unfortunately, The Infiltrator fails to deliver on the promise of the fascinating real life events on which it’s based. While there is a relatively enjoyable thriller here, it’s buried beneath a little too much stylistic pretence and hindered by an execution that can best be described as confused. Indeed, this is where Furman’s film falters most significantly: The Infiltrator suffers from a confusion of aesthetic, a confusion of mood and the muddled authenticity of its period setting. Despite this, The Infiltrator gets by on some solid performances from it’s more-than-capable leads and the built-in tension of its real life plot. There’s an abundance of nail-biting moments here and we are never left wondering about what is at risk for the players in the government scheme.
In 1986, Mazur begins his infiltration of Escobar’s drug trafficking empire, going undercover as a money-laundering businessman named Bob Musella. Along with the help of fellow agents Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) and Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), Mazur begins to gain the confidence of those in Escobar’s network, particularly his top lieutenant Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), with whom he strikes up a significant friendship. Here, the Infiltrator is most successful, navigating the muddy water and moral gray areas of undercover work – the dangers of becoming emotionally attached to one’s target. The always-likeable Cranston expertly communicates this inner-turmoil and some of the film’s most enjoyable moments revolve around these quiet tensions.
It takes a long time for The Infiltrator to get to this point, however. Not enough time is given to laying the story’s narrative groundwork and the film’s first act is notably clunky: What should be a straightforward setup ends up bordering on incoherence and too much time is spent trying to establish a kind of cool, Scorsese-like stylistic playfulness and 1980s retro aesthetic. As I’ve mentioned, it is this confusion of style, mood and aesthetic that really brings The Infiltrator down. Certain moments are overly stylised with vastly disparate approaches and, consequently, the overall mood feels messy and disconnected. Most notably, an intensely dark voodoo ritual scene and a pseudo-Goodfellas tracking shot sequence stand out like sore thumbs. Furthermore, the film’s period aesthetic feels somewhat off, even cartoonish at times. For a film that targets real life events and emotional realism, this confused aesthetic gets in the way of full absorption.
Despite The Infiltrator’s flaws, there is enough here to hold one’s attention: some great performances (of note is a regrettably underused Leguizamo), a fascinating story line and plenty of narrative tension make this an often enjoyable, albeit run-of-the-mill crime thriller. Not essential viewing by any means, but a satisfying enough excursion into the rapidly expanding field of the narco-thriller.