Rated R. Running time: 2 hour 7 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 3; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star ratings (1-5): 5
O let the evil of the wicked come to an end, but establish the righteous, you who test the minds and hearts, O righteous God.
Perverseness of heart shall be far from me; I will know nothing of evil.
Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.
I couldn’t agree more with the assessment of this crime thriller by the reviewer in TIME Magazine: “This is a summer movie for grown-ups.” So intense at times is the suspense that you will even forget your popcorn, the prerequisite required to fully enjoy the other bloated and unbelievable thrillers flooding your local cinemaplex. Neither of the film’s three undercover agents are superheroes, but they are infinitely more believable and enjoyable. Nor are the drug-traffickers super villains, but you will not find any on neighboring screens both as smooth and as cold blooded as the ones in director Brad Furman’s film.
Based on former U.S. Customs agent Robert Mazur’s book of the same name, this is the five year-long story of the bringing to justice the drug cartel run by Columbia’s Pablo Escobar. It is the mid 1980s, and the US Customs unit headed by Bonni Tischler (Amy Ryan) is dedicated to stemming the flood of cocaine flowing through southern Florida from Columbia. They feel stymied, because no matter how large an amount of drugs they seize, more keep coming. Special Agent Robert Mazur, ably played by Bryan Cranston), says, “I think we’ve been doing this backward. We’ve been following the drugs to get to the bad guys. What if we chased the money?” And so begins the epic tale of Operation C-Chase, the infiltration of Pablo Escobar’s large organization, a venture that will require much ingenuity, courage, and patience—as well as Oscar-caliber acting by the agents involved.
The partner assigned to Agent Mazur is the bold and brash Puerto Rica-born Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), so it takes a while for the calm and quiet Mazur to feel comfortable with him. They couldn’t be more different, with the older Mazur being married with two children. After careful research looking at headstones in a cemetery, Mazur adopts the identity of the deceased Robert Musella because they are about the same age, he was Italian American, and they have the same initials. With the help of the vast resources of the US Treasury Department Mazur develops the character of a rich high roller with wide-ranging banking connections. They even set up the shell of an investment company; his pitch being that investing in stock and companies is the safest way to launder dirty drug money. He is provided with a lavish mansion suitable for a rock star to add authenticity to his carefully constructed resume. When Mazur manages to capture the attention of Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), Escobar’s top lieutenant, everything about him and his claim to be able to handle the cartel’s huge amount of cash for laundering is believable. As an added touch he even has a fake fiancée in novice agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger).
There is many a danger that could lead to their certain death, a chief one being Mazur’s devotion to his wife and his moral scruple regarding betraying his vows to her. When he and Emir at a strip club are plied with prostitutes, the younger partner willingly engages in sex, but Mazur puts off his nubile partner, claiming that he wants to be faithful to his girlfriend. Later, Emir is upset by this, declaring that they have to go all the way, do anything in order to convince the criminals that they are with them. During the following weeks, as Mazur is thrown into intimate situations with faux fiancée Kathy, it is obvious that he is drawn to her and could easily bed down with her in one of the luxurious rooms they frequent during their travels.
Perhaps the most electric scene of danger is the one in which Mazur is dining out with his wife Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Suddenly one of the criminals appears at his table, obviously surprised that his “friend” is dining with a woman other than the fiancée whom he has met. Just then the waiter brings their anniversary cake, and the quick-witted Musella creates a diversion by pretending that the waiter has brought the wrong cake, not the birthday cake he had ordered. As the hapless server tries to explain that he did not mix up the order, Musella feigns anger, grabbing the man and pushing his face into cake. Evelyn, of course, is horrified by this brutal act, but the crook is duly convinced by his friend’s cover story.
During the course of the five years Mazur and partners are astonished at the willingness of so many international bankers to play along with the cartel, the profits being so great. His fancy briefcase is equipped with a tape recorder. He just has to turn sideways a decorative brass eagle near the clasp to turn on the machine, so he is able to make over a thousand recordings of officials incriminating themselves.
Mazur also becomes acquainted with Escobar’s money manager Javier Ospina (Yul Vazquez), always dressed in white, including his hat. His bizarre behavior is influenced by his penchant for drugs and his obsession with sex—he even tries to come on to “Musella”!
Mazur’s sensitive conscience becomes disturbed as he develops a liking for the cultured Roberto Alcaino and his wife Gloria (Elena Anaya). The Alcaino’s are completely taken in, Roberto declaring his trust in his new friend and bestowing an expansive gift onto Kathy when they visit his lavish penthouse in Miami. The couples visit back and forth and dine frequently together. So when at the climax of the sting operation Mazur sees that Roberto and his wife have come to the fake wedding service, there is a note of regret in his greeting to his friend, who is soon to be arrested and taken away.
This is a film made all the more powerful by the knowledge that the events portrayed actually happened. There are no special effects-enhanced fistfights and careening car chases or gun battles involving the firing of thousands of rounds of bullets. Just a suspenseful battle of wits against a brutal array of suave criminals willing to do anything to maintain their vast empire of wealth. There is bloodshed, in one scene coming so unexpectedly that it is far more shocking than those in routine thrillers involving dozens of victims. At the end we are told of the fates of the various characters involved, as well as the knowledge that the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), the seventh largest privately held financial institution in the world, was brought down by the sting operation.
Director Brad Furman’s film is not just a thriller, but also a character study. Bryan Cranston is outstanding as the resourceful man who does not want to compromise his marital vows but must somehow convince the bad guys that he is one of them—the last of the two Scriptures above were chosen with him and his dilema in mind. The supporting actors are equally good, John Leguizamo as the volatile Emir Abreu; Diane Kruger, one moment all business as an agent and the next the sexy fiancée Kathy Ertz; Benjamin Bratt makes us actually like Roberto Alcaino, the brutal drug lieutenant.
We might wish for larger roles for the talented Amy Ryan as Agent Bonni Tischler and Juliet Aubrey as Mazur’s wife Evelyn, but this would have made the lengthy film even longer, and would not have added to the heart of the narrative, the dangerous deception carried on by the three undercover agents in order to bring the vicious criminals to justice. As it is there are enough scenes between Mazur and Evelyn to show that his mission came close to destroying his relationship with her and the children.
This film will soon be joined by the other crime thriller for adults, Hell and High Water, the two films making it a good summer for those unimpressed by the seemingly endless Bourne series or the overcrowded superhero genre.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the August issue of VP.
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