The Infiltrator is based on the true story of US Customs agent Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston), who routinely goes undercover in major drug operations. The movie follows him as he takes the identity of Bob Musella, mob-connected businessman offering to launder money to the Medellin cartel. Though Mazur has plenty of experience in undercover work, he has never dealt with a target so big and so dangerous. He risks everything as he follows the money and gets close to some of the most vicious and violent people in the world, uncovering a global banking conspiracy along the way.
The Infiltrator traffics in the typical language of the undercover cop film. It offers the intrigue of hero cops being drawn into the darkness of the criminal world, of good men growing genuinely close to the people they're investigating, and having no power to change things when horrible things occur. It hints at complexity in depicting the character as being committed to a fault, but never really follows through. The movie seems to be content staying on the surface of this undercover tale, never getting deep enough to really study what's going on.
As a procedural, the film is subpar. The film hardly gets into the nitty gritty of this investigation. The portrait of what these agents are trying to accomplish feels somewhat unclear. We know that they are trying to apprehend members of the Medellin cartel, but the film doesn't do a great job of expressing how every scene is contributing to the larger case. The film seems fully enamored by the strange romance of undercover work, by the thrill of being someone else and getting to do out of the ordinary things. It does give the film license to go to weird places, but this shallow fascination with the trappings of the work runs contrary to the themes the film is ostensibly hinting at.
The movie offers the pretense of being about the darkness of this work. It hints at vague notions of the personal price one pays in pursuit of these criminals. But in the end, it doesn't really seem to care about that stuff at all. In the end, the protagonist feels untouched by everything he's experienced. He and his colleagues don't really seem all that bothered by the things they went through. When the credits roll, it feels like a celebration of undercover work. Whole bits of this film don't really seem to matter all that much.
Given all that, the film is not without its thrills. The movie is most effective when it makes it feel like the investigation could fall apart at any moment. There is a sense early on that Robert is in over his head, and there is some merit to the depiction of his journey towards realizing just how terrible things might get. But the film just doesn't hold together. Bryan Cranston is pretty good as Mazur, his face often conveying a subtext that doesn't seem present in the script. If nothing else, Cranston does make this film fairly watchable.
The Infiltrator is reasonably entertaining, but it feels a little disjointed and plenty shallow. Thus is an amazing true story that feels like it got out through the filter of a filmmaker that doesn't really know what he wants to say through this story. It ends up feeling kind of phony, it merits ultimately outweighed by the apparent lack of thoughtfulness of the part of the writing and the direction. Cranston is great, and there are a few moments of lucidity that suggest greater possibilities. But as a whole, the film feels kind of empty.