Greetings again from the darkness. The war on drugs has become a bit of a punchline in the real world, but has proven to be fertile ground for filmmaking: Sicario (2015), American Hustle(2013), Traffic(2000). Additionally, the popular Netflix show “Narcos” takes on the same Medellin drug cartel as this latest from director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer, 2011). The movie is based on the true events of Robert Mazur’s book “The Infiltrator: My Secret Life Inside the Dirty Banks Behind Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel” (a title that’s very descriptive, if a bit long).
Bryan Cranston continues his impressive Hollywood run this time as Robert Mazur, the man who goes undercover to expose the money-laundering system of the cartel. His flamboyant alter-ego is known as Bob Musella, a character that allows Mazur (and Cranston) to show a side not typically seen. His antics get him inside Columbian Drug Lord Escobar’s organization in the mid-1980’s.
When Mazur realizes the traditional method of chasing the drugs isn’t working, he decides the age-old idiom “follow the money” might be a better approach. This takes him inside the world of international money laundering, and he learns that banks and governments are quite dependent on this huge business of drug money movement.
There are specific groups of people here: the government agencies, the small task force, the corrupt (and appreciative) bankers, the various levels within the cartel, and even Mazur’s family … all these forces intertwine to make life difficult for Mazur and his team, and provide a glimpse into the complexities of undercover work.
In addition to stellar work from Cranston, the cast is terrific. John Leguizamo plays Mazur’s motivated partner Abreu; Diane Kruger plays his undercover fiancé; Juliet Aubrey is Mazur’s real life wife who doesn’t much appreciate his declining the early retirement offer; Olympia Dukakis provides a dash of comedy relief as Mazur’s Aunt; Yul Vasquez is the creepy money manager for Escobar; Benjamin Bratt plays Roberto, Escobar’s right-hand man and the key to Mazur’s case; and Elena Anaya (The Skin I Live In, 2011) is Roberto’s wife. Also present are Amy Ryan, Jason Isaacs and the always great Michael Pare.
There are a couple of standout scenes – one involving chicken and voodoo, and another with a briefcase mishap, but my favorite is the Happy Anniversary cake scene in the restaurant where Mazur flashes his alter-ego Musella for his real wife to see … and she is understandably stunned.
The movie does a nice job of capturing the look and feel of the era (30 years ago), but it’s somehow missing the elevated suspense it portends to drag us and the characters through. Some elements seemed impossible to believe – why would Mazur risk his family’s safety? The timeline was a bit muddled. We aren’t sure how much time has passed, but there certainly don’t seem to be enough interactions before Roberto is telling Mazur he is “like family”. It plays a bit like those romance movies where the two leads are head over heels in love after a conversation or two. An element is missing and it affects the level of tension throughout the film. And that’s something even a Leonard Cohen song (“Everybody Knows”) can’t fix.
Greetings again from the darkness. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has carved out a terrific career alternating between major action movies (Fast Five) and comedy flicks (The Other Guys) … both which take advantage of his real life Hulk-like physique and presence. Apparently two film genres is not enough. This time out he attempts to transition to a serious dramatic role as the Construction Company owner-divorced/remarried-suburban father who will do anything for his quasi-estranged teenage son. This would have been a Harrison Ford role back in the 1990’s and probably better suited to Matt Damon today.
Jason (Rafi Gavron) makes a dumb mistake by accepting delivery of a shoebox full of Ecstacy from his best friend. Next thing you know, Jason has fallen victim to the exceptionally strict minimum sentence federal drug laws for first time offenders. Enter Jason’s earnest, hard-working dad who pushes the politically ambitious federal prosecutor (Susan Sarandon) to allow him to infiltrate the drug world in an effort to reduce his son’s sentence.
John (The Rock) has a nice suburban home, with a nice second wife (Nadine Velazquez from Flight), a nice young daughter, and a stressed-out ex-wife (Melina Kanakardes from “CSI:NY”) whom he kinda blames for Jason’s mess. John has loads of family drama plus financial issues at work as he is trying to expand his business. Now he has to figure out how to get into the dirty drug distribution world. His first attempt leaves him face down in the dirt after getting his ass kicked – not a sight we are accustomed to with this giant of a man. Finally, he gets help from one of his ex-con employees (Jon Bernthal) who is trying to stay clean, but really needs the money John is offering.
A meeting with scary Michael Kenneth Williams (Chalky from “Boardwalk Empire”) leads to a meeting with a Mexican drug lord known as El Topo (Benjamin Bratt). John’s access to 18-wheelers is just what this drug cartel needed. For some reason, these brilliant drug dealers would rather trust some unknown trucker dude than spend part of their $83 million on buying their own rig. All logic aside, John works closely with a DEA Agent played by Barry Pepper, who is sporting the worst facial hair this side of Gandalf.
The director and co-writer is Ric Roman Waugh, who made his name as a super Hollywood stunt performer (and also directed Felon). His co-writer is Justin Haythe also wrote Revolutionary Roadand the upcoming The Lone Ranger. The story is based on a true to life “PBS: Frontline” about a family who went through a similar ordeal. In spite of the overuse of the “shaky cam” there is some confusion on whether this is a political statement concerning the stringent drug laws, the abuse of power by political officials, or an insight into the moral dilemmas faced by “normal” types in this day and age. The script seems to exploit the issues in the same manner those with power exploit the first time offenders (often high school and college age kids).
The trailer is a bit misleading as the film only features two real action sequences and both are sampled in the trailer. This is more of a family drama with some moral dilemmas sprinkled in. Pepper and Bernthal are especially effective in their roles, while The Rock is just too distracting to play the typical suburban dad. He is a giant and you can’t ignore that he still looks like a world class wrestler and not a guy you would see at a PTA meeting. Still, if you don’t think too much, this one is entertaining enough for a February release.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF:you want to see The Rock’s attempt to transition to serious drama
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the next big time action flick from The Rock