The Infiltrator

By: Kevin Jordan

Tension and Diane Kruger.

INFILTRATOR art sm

If you are aware that The Infiltrator is a movie that exists, then you must watch a lot of television, are Bryan Cranston’s biggest fan, or you really like movie trailers.  Also, you aren’t playing Pokemon Go because those people aren’t even aware that I’m standing right behind them making faces.  I found about The Infiltrator a couple of weeks ago and when I saw that the screening was the day before the Ghostbusters reboot, I decided to see it if for no other reason than being the complete opposite of Ghostbusters.  Also, I like Diane Kruger (who stars alongside Cranston).

The Infiltrator is a story related to Pablo Escobar, a man that I know the following things about:  he was a drug lord…?  That’s it, and it’s a question because I wasn’t even sure of the accuracy of that one piece of knowledge.  As it turns out, Escobar was a Colombian drug lord whose cartel operated during the 1970’s and 1980’s, with Escobar being hunted down and killed in 1993.  That’s not a spoiler for the film because the film isn’t actually about Escobar.  The film features a U.S. Customs agent named Robert Mazur (Cranston) who goes undercover as a money launderer to infiltrate Escobar’s network and take out some, if not all, of the cartels infrastructure and power figures.  (SPOILER ALERT – the following sentence reveals the fate of Mazur – END SPOILER ALERT) The film is based on the autobiography of Mazur (Mazur is also an executive producer), who, surprisingly, still has a functioning heart and brain and body parts.  I have no idea how that’s possible considering the people that were arrested should be out of prison by now and they don’t seem the forgiving type.

So, that’s the movie and I’d say it’s pretty good, but not great.  The obvious strength of this movie is in the cast, all of whom were nothing short of brilliant (kudos to director Brad Furman for maximizing the talent).  Cranston was as good as we’ve come to expect now that Walter White is safely in the upper echelon of fictitious characters.  His Mazur is a perfect balance of a guy who is confident and very good at his job, but also seemingly out of his depth at times throughout the operation.  His relationships with his partner, Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), wife Ev (Juliet Aubrey), boss Bonni Tischler (Amy Ryan), fake fiancée and fellow agent Kathy Ertz (Kruger), and Escobar’s right hand man Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt) form the meat of this film and each is developed and executed with precision and care.  If you have any trouble believing these relationships, then you are the most cynical person in the theater and I’m in the theater.

There's a theft going on.

There’s a theft going on.

As good as Cranston is, Kruger and Leguizamo steal the scenes they are in.  As Mazur’s pretend fiancée, Kathy must play the part of rich socialite and convince all of these dangerous people that she is no kind of threat.  This is also her first undercover job, which makes Mazur more anxious because he is a bit of a control freak, but she performs flawlessly.  So flawlessly, in fact, that her guilt at being asked to betray Alcaino and his wife Gloria (Elena Anaya), is palpable.  On the flip side, Leguizamo is convincing the low-level thugs that he is also a low-level thug.  At one point, Mazur asks why Abreu does this job and Abreu is clear that he does it for fun.  And, clearly, he is enjoying the job.  But, even he has limits and you will see it on his face at times.  If there’s a downside it’s that Leguizamo and Kruger could have used more screen time, though I’m not sure this particular screenplay could have supported that.  Either way, bravo to those two.

The one thing that keeps this movie from being great is that the story is a little dry and it doesn’t delve into Escobar at all.  This also serves to confuse the audience (or maybe just me) a little as Alcaino appears to be the top of the cartel.  Even though they tell you his name, there was a small portion of the movie where I wondered if he was actually Escobar.  It doesn’t help that the entire plot revolves around the money laundering and not the drugs, so people are naturally going to be a little bored.  People do crazy things on drugs, but short of swimming in a building filled with cash, people just hold or look at money.

Even with a finance-based story, there is a very good buildup of tension throughout the film.  As I mentioned, the actors do a great job of portraying different emotions and fear is prominent among them.  Not knowing this story at all really helps because you have no idea who is going to make it through this operation, (SPOILER ALERT – see previous spoiler alert – END SPOILER ALERT) title character notwithstanding, and you will want the good guys to make it.  Too many movies display a complete lack of ability to build tension, so finding a good one like The Infiltrator is enough to forgive any small shortcomings.

We missed you Ben.

We missed you Ben.

Generally, I tend to like movies that teach me something interesting about history.  In this case, I learned about operation C-Chase (which is the plot of the movie), that Customs has undercover agents (for most of the movie I wondered why this wasn’t a DEA operation), that Benjamin Bratt is still a working actor (and still good at it), and that Olympia Dukakis (playing Mazur’s aunt) is still a living human (she’s 85!!).  Most importantly, I learned I want to see Kruger and Leguizamo in more movies.  They’re really good.

Rating: Ask for fifty cents back.  That’s how close it was to being great.

John Wick

By: Kevin Jordan

WTF?

john_wick

When I walked out of the theater at the Mall of America, there was this girl surveying people about the movie they just watched.  Here is how that conversation went:

Her: Did you just come out of a movie?
Me (thinking: I just walked out of the theater, what do you think?)
Me: Yes.
Her: What movie did you just see?
Me: John Wick.
Her: Would you mind answering some questions about it?
Me: (smiling like an insane person) I’d be happy to.
Her: On a scale from one to five, five being the best, how would you rate this movie?
Me: Zero.
Her: (incredulously) Really?!
Me: Yes, it was that bad.
Her: Why was it that bad?
Me: I generally prefer my movies to have some modicum of a plot.
Her: Would you recommend this movie to your friends?
Me: …
Her: Of course not, since you gave it a zero.
Me: You got it.
Her: Would you be willing to sign up for emails for future free movie tickets?
Me: I don’t live here.
Her: Ok. Thanks and come again.
Me (thinking: I don’t live here.)

I wasn’t really sure if I was going to write a review of John Wick, but on Monday I read that it had an 86% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  That is not a typo; 86% of critics liked a movie whose entire plot is “Keanu Reeves slaughters scores of men because one guy stole his car and killed his puppy.”  And I’m not talking about back-handed positive reviews; the vast majority of them were glowing reviews with ratings of three to four stars out of four, or B+’s or A-‘s, or eight or higher out of ten.  I’ve been reviewing movies for a long enough time that when I think a movie is complete shit, the majority of other critics do too.  So, of course I decided to write a review, but since there isn’t much to say about a movie that is nothing more than a series of choreographed fight scenes, I thought I’d read some of those favorable reviews and ridicule those critics.  And, boy, they didn’t disappoint me.

(Note: Every one of these reviews can be found via Rotten Tomatoes.)

Richard Corliss, Time Magazine – “Quibbles aside, John Wick is the smartest display of the implacable but somehow ethical Reeves character since the 2008 Street Kings.”

Is it really considered ethical if a person murders more than 80 people when only three of them wronged him?  And, over only a stolen car and dead puppy?  Maybe Mr. Corliss doesn’t know what the words “smartest” and “ethical” actually mean.  Or “quibbles”, for that matter.

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone – “I know, it sounds basic to the point of brainless.  Don’t let that discourage you.”

Do let that discourage you.  Are you ready to advise your friends to spend $10 or more to be brainless for two hours?  Some friend you are.

James Berardinelli, Reel Reviews – “John Wick is a rousing action thriller of the sort rarely encountered in theaters these days.”

This is how the review begins!  (1) This movie is not rousing unless by rousing he means roughly one dead body per minute of running time.  (2) Does “every couple of weeks” still count as “rarely”?  Fury is less than two weeks old and The Equalizer just a month old.  Shit, The Equalizer is essentially the same movie, except its lead is slightly older and slightly blacker.

Mr. Berardinelli continues – “There isn’t much of a plot, but that’s often the case with revenge-based tales. Movies of this sort aren’t about narrative depth, they’re about taking a hero through an increasingly difficult series of bad guys until he comes face-to-face with the Big Boss.”

In other words, this movie is a plotless video game that you don’t even get to play.

One more from Berardinelli – “My biggest gripe (and it’s not a big one) with John Wick‘s presentation is the prologue flash-forward which adds nothing to the narrative progression while telling us pretty much how things are going to end.”

That’s your biggest gripe?  Not the complete lack of story?  Not the complete lack of character development?  Not that in a movie trying to be a throwback to 80’s action flicks there isn’t a single female breast exposed?  Or even a naked butt cheek of either sex?  This guy’s bar is set so low the only way you’d know it existed is if you tripped over it.

Forrest Wickman, Slate – “The laconic screenplay stays away from high-minded dialogue. (The two lines that got the biggest laughs at my showing were both “Oh.”) Instead, it relies on visual storytelling, as when the killing of Wick’s dog is crosscut with flashbacks to the death of his wife, to show us Wick sees these events essentially the same way: as evidence of an unjust world.”

Ok, technically he’s right, but this movie doesn’t even feature low-minded dialogue, as evidenced by Mr. Wickman himself, when his only memorable quote from the movie is “Oh.”  There is also no visual storytelling since there is no story and nothing ever indicates Wick is motivated to correct injustice.  In fact, the opposite is conveyed, in that he is a retired mob killer/enforcer and he sees the killing of his dog as the rekilling of his wife.  He’s not dishing out punishment to correct Mr. Wickman’s imaginary injustice; he’s out to kill the guy that interrupted his grieving (and kill pretty much everyone else as well).

Scott, Three Movie Buffs – “On the few occasions when he does stop, the story wobbles a bit. The worst cliche in the film happens when the head of the Russian mafia captures Wick for a short time. Despite the fact that Wick has proven to be possibly the deadliest man on the planet, instead of killing him right away, the mob chieftain decides to talk to him for a while and then, in the best tradition of James Bond villains, walk away when he wants Wick killed, which for some unexplained reason is to be by suffocation instead of a quick bullet to the head. The mobster then follows this stupidity up with another stupid move at the film’s climax, just when everything has been settled.”

It’s impossible not to notice how idiotic this scene is.  Seriously, how does this shit still appear in movies?  The head mobster reminisces earlier in the movie about how he once saw Wick kill three guys with a pencil and how Wick “…isn’t the boogeyman; he’s the guy you send to kill the fucking boogeyman.”  Didn’t it occur to him that Wick just might escape handcuffs, a chair, and just two henchmen?

Scott continues – “If you’re a fan of action movies, this one is almost impossible not to like.”

Hold on, Scott.  You just told us that the film contains one of the dumbest tropes/clichés of action movies, plus that the story “wobbles a bit” when the action breaks (“wobbles” is a polite way of saying sits on its own nutsack and falls off a ledge) – how can this movie be almost impossible not to like?

Louise Keller, Urban Cinefile – “The script is clever in that we slowly get to understand the code by which everyone lives. There are rules and protocols including special waste disposal teams who arrive on call, to efficiently remove bodies and all signs of carnage – for the price of a gold coin.”

At no point do we ever get to understand the code by which everyone lives.  There is no code.  The closest thing we get to a code is in the hotel where John stays where “nobody is allowed to conduct business on its grounds.”  That’s it.  There are no rules or protocols.  The “special waste disposal team” is not special at all (nor clever or even unique).  In fact, they serve no purpose to the movie or “story” at all, considering the two places they clean up are never seen again.  Piling on is the fact that the police literally see the freshly killed bodies in John’s home and do nothing more than wish John a good evening.  The clean-up crew could have fed the bodies into a mulcher on John’s front lawn while making small talk with the cops and the movie would not change in the slightest.

Cynthia Fuchs, PopMatters – “John Wick isn’t any of that: he’s a veteran, a retired super-assassin of such renown that only his name need be mentioned for hard-faced killers and kingpins to reveal just the slightest quiver of concern…It also offers you a chance to feel smart about the genre…

Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian – “What Allen’s bratty-ass punk Iosef didn’t realize was that John Wick used to be the top hit-man for his father Viggo (Michael Nyqvist).”

So, if John Wick is so renowned, how is it that the kingpin’s own adult son and his son’s two lackeys have never heard of John Wick even though Wick has only been retired for five years?  Did dad seriously never scare his idiot son (yes, his dad feels this way about his son) with stories of the guy who could kill the boogeyman with a pencil?  Did dad seriously never introduce his son to John even though his son would presumably be taking over the business and John was their best killer?  Does dad secretly want his son to die?  Your guess is as good as mine, but none of them will make you feel smart.

Chris Swain, Examiner – Title of review: “One of the best action films of 2014.”

“Unfortunately the film is very basic and that may be a red flag for some. “John Wick” is an at-surface-level kind of film without a lot of depth. It’s a simple revenge story where the action is supposed to outweigh any other shortcomings. The dialogue is extremely lacking at times and the story is a little weak.  Another feeble moment is the big fight scene that the film builds up so much, which has a beyond anticlimactic conclusion.”

No – Popeye was a little weak when he didn’t eat his spinach.  John Wick’s story is a limp dick that no amount of Viagra or Cialis could ever shore up.  More importantly, how can John Wick be one of the best action films of the year while it is very basic without a lot of depth, contains extremely lacking dialogue and a feeble conclusion, and uses action to outweigh other shortcomings?  Doesn’t that describe a movie like Gangster Squad, which has a 32% Rotten Tomatoes score?  When Chris Swain saw X-Men: Days of Future Past or Guardians of the Galaxy or Edge of Tomorrow (you know, actually great action films) did he just pee all over himself in ecstasy?

Bruce Ingram, Chicago Sun-Times – ““John Wick” doesn’t offer much in the way of a plot. It’s a standard-issue revenge thriller, basically, about a reformed assassin who breaks out his old hit-man kit for personal reasons. But that just means there’s not much story to get in the way when Mr. Wick decides to uncork some retribution.”

Yeah, don’t you hate it when story gets in the way of telling a story?  I mean, who needs that shit?  I’d also like to point out that Wick isn’t a reformed assassin, he’s retired.  A reformed assassin doesn’t go on a killing spree over a puppy and a ’69 Mustang; he goes to therapy to talk it out and probably just buys a new dog.  Well, maybe a reformed redneck assassin goes on a killing spree, but not a normal reformed assassin.

Stephanie Merry, Washington Post – “Even his old boss calls him the Bogeyman, because when you need to off the Bogeyman, you call John Wick.”

This bugged me throughout the entire movie.  The boss makes a point of telling his son that Wick is NOT the boogeyman, then calls him the boogeyman for the rest of the film.  Maybe he was distracted by the subtext featuring goofy comic book font of certain words when he spoke in Russian.  I know I was.

Merry continues – “The story, especially toward the end, is a lot less important than those fight sequences. But early on, smart, funny scenes attempt to answer questions other action movies don’t address. For example: How do our invincible heroes navigate car chases so ably? In this case, we see John Wick practicing his skills amid obstacles in a parking lot. And what happens to all those dead bodies? Here, there’s a jaunty cleanup crew.  But John Wick has a more interesting story and better fights than most…”

There’s a lot wrong with these few sentences, so let’s just hit them one by one.

(1) The story should never be less important, let alone a lot less important, than fight sequences ever.  This is not Street Fighter.

(2) Has anyone ever wondered about the hero’s driving skills when that hero is a highly trained assassin?  If the answer to that is yes, you were probably shaken as a baby.

(3) Wick isn’t practicing in a parking lot; he’s practicing on a runway.  Where the fuck are you parking when you go to the airport?

(4) Who cares what happens to the bodies?  If you don’t give a shit about the story over fight sequences, how can you possibly give a shit about proper housecleaning?

(5) No and no.

Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly – “And the screenplay by Derek Kolstad (2012’s The Package) is a marvelously rich and stylish feat of pulpy world-building…They’ve taken a broken clock and lovingly restored it with Swiss timing and precision.”

Mr. Nashawaty is clearly vying for Hollywood shill of the year with this absurd quote.  I know EW openly whores itself out to the studios, but this is a new low even for them.

Scott Mendelson, Forbes – “In an era when some of the best old-school action goes the DTV route (think Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning),…”

“What could have been a generic “reformed hit man takes vengeance after a personal loss” story is enlivened both by the quality of acting and action (more on that later), but by the rich world that has been created.”

“John Wick is the real deal. It is a terrific action picture, filled with strong performances by a game cast, along with superb action set-pieces and a genuinely interesting world to boot.”

There are many ways to tell when someone is totally full of shit, but none are as obvious as a movie review appearing in a financial magazine and an author claiming Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is one of the best old-school action movies out there.  Nature invented syphilis for guys like him.

Neil Miller, Film School Rejects – “Even better, John Wick also sports an interesting premise and a surprisingly sharp bit of world-building not normally seen in your average shoot ‘em up.”

Okay, that’s several times now these people have cited great world-building.  Either my brain quit during this movie or these people watched a completely different movie than I did.  The world-building I saw, at best, hinted at an underground world.  This movie would have been far more interesting had they actually developed any (ANY!!) of that world’s characters or locations, but the action never stops long enough for any of that to happen.  We know there are assassins (Adrianne Palicki, Willem Dafoe), we know there is a Russian mob and crime syndicate, we know that Mayhem from the All-State commercials (Dean Winters) is completely wasted, we know there is a special hotel where Ian McShane drinks cocktails and Lance Reddick tends the desk, and we know they use gold coins that look like those chocolate covered coins you get for Easter every year.  We know nothing else; no explanations of any of those things.  That’s not world building, that’s throwing shit at a wall and not caring why anything sticks.

Tom Russo, Boston Globe – “We’d be up for seeing John Wick get pulled back in again, but with good cause.”

We are all doomed.

The thing that stood out among all of these reviews (besides the insipidness) was they all loved the choreography and that was enough to forgive everything else in the movie.  Except, these same people trashed Michael Bay’s flicks even though nobody does special effects and visuals like Bay and at least Bay makes attempts at telling a story beyond “guy kills everyone in sight.”  So, again I ask – WTF?

Rating: Apparently, if all you want is near non-stop killing and action, it’s worth your money.  If you care about any other component of film-making, you will want all of your money back and a survey-girl to talk to.