Friday, July 15, 2016

The Infiltrator: One of the greatest roles ever played

The Infiltrator (2016) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated R, for strong violence, profanity, sexual candor and drug content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.15.16

Truth isn’t merely stranger than fiction; it’s also a lot scarier.

When the undercover Bob Mazur (Bryan Cranston, right) finally gains an audience with
Colombian drug cartel overlords, he's surprised to discover that he first must pass some
sort of dangerous "initiation" overseen by Rudy Ambrecht (Carsten Hayes, left).
U.S. Customs operative Robert “Bob” Mazur spent years as a deep undercover agent in the 1980s, climactically building an identity as a high-level money launderer for senior members of several Colombian drug cartels. The operation ultimately led to one of the largest busts in U.S. history: 100 drug traffickers and money launderers arrested, along with the seizure of 3,200 pounds of cocaine and roughly $100 million in cash and assets.

Perhaps more dramatically, it brought about the collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, at the time the world’s seventh largest privately held financial institution, with assets of $20 billion. It also was one of the world’s largest money-laundering banks.

Remember BCCI? Anybody involved with the banking industry recalls full well how transaction reporting regulations changed, almost overnight, in the wake of this scandal.

Mazur detailed his experiences in a riveting 2009 memoir, The Infiltrator: My Secret Life Inside the Dirty Banks Behind Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel. That book, in turn, has been transformed into an equally compelling film by director Brad Furman. Screenwriter Ellen Sue Brown’s adaptation is by turns fascinating, suspenseful, terrifying and even mordantly amusing.

The film gets additional dramatic heft from star Bryan Cranston’s impressively nuanced portrayal of Mazur: a performance of delicate subtlety that becomes more persuasive as the narrative moves from one jaw-dropping incident to the next.

And while it’s true that Cranston commands the screen, he has equally superb support from all of the impeccably selected co-stars. This is another film that lends weight to the call for giving casting directors their own Academy Award category, because Gail Stevens found just the right individual for every part.

Perhaps more than anything else, this is a very nervous film. Despite knowing full well that Mazur will survive these events, the suspense is no less intense; plenty of sidebar individuals are vulnerable at every turn, and we’ve ample evidence throughout, of the cold-blooded ferocity of cartel shot-callers.

Mazur wasn’t merely smart, intuitive and resourceful; he must be one of the world’s great unsung poker players, because his powers of affable, bald-faced bluff — and nerves-of-steel charm — are second to none. Cranston has just the right body language, and deftly shaded expressions, to put us inside this man’s head. It’s equally clear, despite the surface display of methodical calmness, that Mazur must’ve been terrified a great deal of the time. With good cause.

We meet Mazur during an earlier sting that finds him playing a low-level drug runner; it’s a marvelous introduction, deliberately staged for the humor implicit in Cranston’s sleazy appearance. This undercover operation comes to a premature close due to technical difficulties; Mazur returns to his real-life role of loving husband and father to wife Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) and their two adolescent children.

This seems crazy, and Furman and Brown amplify the incongruity: How could anybody lead such a dangerous life by day, returning home to become a board game-playing family man by night? Evelyn apparently knows something of her husband’s work, but his candor has limits; he certainly hasn’t been forthcoming about the degree of danger involved.

Nor is Mazur satisfied with the progress being made. At best, they’re putting small-potatoes pushers in jail, but that isn’t even scratching the surface. He therefore proposes a shift of priority: Rather than trying to follow the drugs on the street, why not follow the money? The truth of the matter is that Escobar and his various lieutenants are making so much money, so quickly, they’ve no idea how to conceal the cash.

With the approval of his boss, Bonni Tischler (Amy Ryan), Mazur establishes a fresh alter-ego as Bob Musella, a slick money-laundering businessman with the financial smarts to “arrange” sheltering operations via legitimate investments. He’s partnered with streetwise undercover colleague Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), a brash and cocky agent who clearly gets an unhealthy charge from flirting with danger.

Abreu gains Mazur an audience with lower-echelon money launderers Gonzalo Mora Jr. (Rubén Ochandiano) and his father, Gonzalo Mora Sr. (Simón Andreu). With every encounter secretly recorded, and behind-the-scenes support from Tischler and her team, Mazur builds trust and ascends the cartel ladder through Javier Ospina (Yul Vazquez), Rudy Ambrecht (Carsten Hayes) and eventually to Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), second only to Escobar.

It’s a horrific, nerve-wracking process, because we know — and Mazur knows — that the slightest verbal gaffe, the merest slip in his cover story, could result in his death. And not immediately; as he’s warned in excruciatingly grim detail, by a concerned colleague, he’d almost certainly watch his wife and children get tortured and slaughtered first.

At the same time, Mazur also wins the trust of top-level BCCI bankers such as Akbar Bilgrami (Art Malik) and Amjad Awan (Saïd Taghmaoui). In a way, they’re almost worse; there’s no pretense with the likes of Ospina and Ambrecht, whereas these immaculately dressed and coifed bankers hide behind the lie of elegance and refinement.

It’s all a deadly chess game, and Furman’s film gets its power from the delicious subtlety with which all the parts are played, and the underlying tension that accompanies every encounter with each new individual.

Leguizamo radiates a crazed, wide-eyed intensity as the volatile Abreu; we can’t help grinning at this performance, while at the same time worrying about the guy’s apparent instability. The contrast is palpable; unlike Mazur, Abreu has no other life to go home to, no artifice to shed at the end of each day. It’s clear that Abreu is this guy, all the time, and Leguizamo has a lot of fun with the role.

Joseph Gilgun is equally riveting as Dominic, a street-tough mob enforcer sprung from prison by Mazur, in order to give “Bob Musella” some cred. Gilgun projects the quiet menace of the truly dangerous, who don’t need to boast in order to prove their lethal capabilities. That said, Dominic respects Mazur, having been treated fairly in the past, and soon becomes an invaluable part of the operation.

Bratt is chilling as the disarmingly suave Alcaino, who with his glamorous wife Gloria (Elena Anaya) grows to trust “Musella” so much that they make him a de facto family member. By this point, Mazur’s undercover identity has expanded to include a fiancée, played by rookie undercover agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger).

Kruger has improved greatly since the appallingly clumsy work she did in the likes of Troy and the two National Treasure entries. Her acting chops here are a pleasant surprise, with Ertz an engaging blend of intelligence, quick thinking and eager-to-please brashness.

Ryan nails Tischler’s ball-busting aura of authority, and Olympia Dukakis is a hoot as Mazur’s mildly larcenous Aunt Vicky. Vazquez is incredibly creepy as the perilously unstable Ospina. Even Leanne Best is memorable, as a bowling alley waitress who flirts briefly with Mazur, during the prologue’s aborted sting.

Furman paces his film impeccably, with assistance from no fewer than three editors: Luis Carballar, Jeff McEvoy and Davis Rosenbloom. Despite much of the screen time being devoted to conversations, the developing tension never wanes. And it’s not all talking heads; we’re reminded, just often enough, how vicious these people can be.

Chris Hajian’s score also deserves credit for the mounting unease, the music a blend of sinister orchestral underscore and rather nasty rap tunes.

It must be mentioned that while most of this story’s characters and details are rigorously accurate, Brown invented a few scenes for cinematic impact, and played fast and loose with a few facts. Such fabrications don’t hurt the film’s atmosphere of authenticity, but truth-oriented purists may raise their eyebrows a few times.

Furman’s résumé to date has been limited to rather vacuous, eye-candy thrillers such as The Lincoln Lawyer and Runner Runner. This new film represents a remarkable jump in directorial maturity. While it’s true that the material and Ellen Sue Brown’s adaptation are compelling to begin with, Furman deserves top marks for assembling all the pieces so carefully.

The Infiltrator is both a sensational drama and a valuable historical document, and it’s certain to be well remembered come Oscar time.

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