Movie Review: True-crime clichés, Ybor City grit and Bryan Cranston in The Infiltrator

Tampa has never looked seedier.

The Infiltrator
Two out of five stars
Rated R. Starring Bryan Cranston, Benjamin Bratt, and Diane Kruger; directed by Brad Furman. Opens July 13.

The Infiltrator wavers, as if seasick, between glib post-Scorsese pop-scored montages and flat-footed interpersonal drama

For Tampa natives, The Infiltrator will amount to a game of Spot That Landmark: The film was largely shot around the Bay, and makes good use of all our seedier corners to pepper its unremarkable true-crime yarn with local flavor. It’s based on the story of Robert Mazur, an undercover DEA agent whose central role in building a money-laundering case against Bank of Credit and Commerce International is dramatized here in less-than-successful fashion.

One thing it does having going for it besides Tampa color is the cast: Bryan Cranston, John Leguizamo, Benjamin Bratt, Diane Kruger and Jason Isaacs deliver solid performances despite a script that stubbornly refuses to interrogate the implications of what it depicts. The Infiltrator wavers, as if seasick, between glib post-Scorsese pop-scored montages and flat-footed interpersonal drama, like when Mazur’s wife begs him to “promise me this is the last one.” More damning, however, is that the broader context of the war on drugs goes entirely unexplored.

The film opens with only a single intertitle mentioning Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel before jumping right into things. In most cases, this would be a blessing; rare is the movie that wouldn’t benefit with some trimming. But The Infiltrator begs for juicy real-world detail to differentiate itself from other recent drug warfare like Sicario and Netflix’s series Narcos. It’s so fleet in its first act that you’d be forgiven for missing which agency Mazur even worked for, let alone its role in the drug war.

As for moral quandaries, don’t expect anything close to the excruciating internal turmoil that Cranston made his name grappling with on Breaking Bad. Here he’s reduced to running through the Cranston Greatest Hits: the peacocking masculinity; the horrified hand over the mouth; the gasping sobs; the “oh shit” slack jaw; and, briefly, the impotent rage.

Director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) and DP Joshua Reis (Lo) fail to give The Infiltrator a distinct visual identity. Its adherence to the yellow-saturated, grainy texture of Soderbergh’s Traffic and the snappy editing of Scorsese’s The Departed leave it feeling lesser in comparison. Even the blown-out light that begins to dominate scenes in the latter half of the film is a signature of frequent Scorsese/Tarantino cinematographer Robert Richardson.

Lest you think I’m misguidedly trying to burden down a fast-paced crime thriller with a bunch of ambiguous politicking, consider two things: One, The Infiltrator is already a saggy 127 minutes, and two, Robert Mazur himself has expressed qualms about the DEA’s handling of the BCCI case. The flashy wedding sequence which ends the film — and ended the case in real life — was a sticking point for Mazur: The New York Times quoted him in 1991 as believing the “outcome was seriously less than it could have been” by closing the case when the agency did.

Some of that complexity would have gone a long way in The Infiltrator, which is otherwise content to stick to well-trod crime drama tropes and doesn’t have the style to transcend them. It does, however, make Tampa Bay look exceptionally grimy. Who wants to power-wash Ybor with me?

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