Imperium

IMPERIUMfinalposter

Imperium” is being released not along after “The Infiltrator,” another movie dealing with an FBI agent going undercover and entering a vicious criminal organization in order to stop the bad guys in their tracks. Like “The Infiltrator,” “Imperium” doesn’t break any new ground in the realm of undercover cop movies, but it is a taut thriller which holds our attention as it throws a barely prepared protagonist into a den of snakes who are quicker to kill than trust.

Front and center in “Imperium” is Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe. Ever since playing the lightning-scarred wizard, the actor has taken on many challenges to prove to the world there is more to him than J.K. Rowling’s infinitely popular literary character. At first he seems out of place as FBI agent Nate Foster, but that’s kind of the point. Nate comes across as a bespectacled and bookish nerd who is more comfortable doing research than going outside of the office. It also doesn’t help he’s the butt of jokes by his fellow agents who have yet to take him the least bit seriously.

But then along comes agent Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette) who sees a strong potential in Nate for undercover work. She is also sick of her superiors devoting all their resources to foreign terrorism instead of putting just as much focus on domestic enemies. Angela brings Nate into her office, tells him what he needs to know and gives him a copy of “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie, the only book needed for undercover work. From there, Nate transforms himself into a war veteran turned skinhead and navigates his way into the dangerous underworld white supremacy.

I have to give writer and director Daniel Ragussis a lot of credit as he focuses on something I desperately want America’s politicians to focus on: domestic terrorism. When it comes to the “War on Terror,” much of the focus has been focused on international groups like ISIS or The Taliban, but the threat inside America has proven to be far greater these days. Ragussis makes this very clear as he features video footage and photos of Neo-Nazis at work, be it going on marches or committing heinous crimes against those people who are not white.

Radcliffe may still have the shadow of Harry Potter hanging over him, but this doesn’t affect his performance as Nate Parker in the slightest. He makes Nate’s transformation into an undercover agent not just believable, but at times frightening. Movies like these show their protagonists sinking so deep into their assignments to where they lose contact with who they are and develop strong friendships with criminals they are supposed to bring down. Radcliffe shows, a lot of times without words, just how desperate Nate is to get to the truth. We already know just how great an actor he is, and his performance in “Imperium” goes to show the kind of acting challenges he is willing to step up to the plate to take on.

But there’s also Toni Collette who proves to be every bit as good as Radcliffe in her portrayal of, Angela Zamparo. Collette makes Angela cool as they come, and it’s loads of fun watching her reduce her male colleagues to rubble as they can’t even begin to match her job efficiency. Collette made her big breakthrough back in 1994 with “Muriel’s Wedding,” and ever since then she has immersed herself so deeply into each role she plays to where you completely forget the ones she played previously. The scenes she shares with Radcliffe here are great as we watch a rookie and a veteran slowly start to figure one another out, and nothing is never as it seems.

“Imperium” has the requisite scenes where Nate has to think fast on his feet so his cover doesn’t get blown, and some resonate with intensity more than others. One of the best comes when Nate is going to a potential site for a party along with Andrew Blackwell who is played by “The Knick’s” Chris Sullivan. Blackwell brings his best poker face to this scene as we watch Radcliffe tremble in fear as he is made to feel death is just around the corner. Both actors succeed in creating an almost unbearably intense scene here as if they are about to make the most pivotal move in a chess game.

Now “Imperium” will not go down as one of the best undercover cop movies ever made, but it does get the job done. It also shows Radcliffe taking on a new challenge and growing even more as an actor. Both he and Collette are more than enough of a reason to check this movie out sooner than later. Writer and director Daniel Ragussis also deserves a lot of credit for focusing on domestic terrorism as it feels like a realm in today’s day and age which doesn’t get enough attention. Sometimes the greatest threat to a nation isn’t from outside of it, but from within. Seriously, look at what Donald Trump’s bizarre run for President has brought out into the open.

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Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

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The Infiltrator

The Infiltrator poster

It’s very tempting to call this movie “Breaking Bad” meets “Donnie Brasco” especially with Bryan “Heisenberg” Cranston starring in it. “The Infiltrator” is about a U.S. Customs Service special agent, Robert Mazur, who goes, as Eddie Murphy put it in “Beverly Hills Cop II,” “deep, deep, deep, deep undercover” to infiltrate one of the world’s largest drug cartels. But more importantly, getting inside this particular drug cartel leads him to the money laundering operation run by the infamous Pablo Escobar who was once called “the king of cocaine.” Yes, this movie is “based on a true story,” but don’t let that dissuade you from seeing it.

“The Infiltrator” takes us back to the year 1985 when the internet didn’t exist, “Miami Vice” was on the air and the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign was the subject of every other commercial we watched on television. Mazur has just come off a mission where he suffered a potentially career-ending injury, but he’s invited to participate in one more mission before retiring for good. Of course, we all know that the last mission will always be the most dangerous one that will test him more than ever before, and we do get the obligatory scene of the hero washing his face and staring at himself in the mirror as he silently questions himself. Also complicating issues is the fact that Mazur has his wife Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) and two kids waiting for him back at home, and his wife can take only so much more of her husband’s work as every time he walks out the door might be the last time she sees him.

I couldn’t help but think of “Donnie Brasco” as I watched “The Infiltrator” as both films deal with undercover officers with families of their own who get so deep into their work that they cannot help but feel for the criminals they are trying to take down as they get too close to them in the process. This movie never comes across as the kind of undercover movie we haven’t seen a number of times before, but director Brad Furman still manages to keep the intensity strong and tight as Mazur and his colleagues face life or death situations more often than not.

Furman has previously directed “The Lincoln Lawyer” which starred Matthew McConaughey as the defense attorney of many Michael Connelly novels, Mickey Haller. Now that movie managed to be a very entertaining legal thriller while bringing nothing new to genre, and Furman does the same thing here with “The Infiltrator.” There are scenes which remind us of many other movies we have seen before, but Furman manages to tweak those familiar situations to where we are forced to expect the unexpected. Just when you think you have seen everything an undercover movie has to offer, along comes this one which really fries your nerves at certain moments.

It also helps that Furman has quite the cast to work with here. Cranston has been on a roll ever since playing Walter White on “Breaking Bad,” and it is fascinating to see him play the kind of character whose mission it is to take down the Walter Whites of the world. It’s a complicated character as Mazur is dedicated to his job and his family, but not always in the same order. Cranston makes us empathize with a man whose priorities get tangled up as he descends deeper into the drug cartel world. Just watch him in the scene where he has to “audition” to meet one of the cartel’s leaders. Cranston makes you feel the frightening predicament of a man who may have gone one step too far, and he imbues the role with an integrity few other actors are capable of doing.

Cranston is also surrounded by a terrific cast of actors like John Leguizamo who brings his uncontainable energy to the role of Emir Abreu, Mazur’s partner. Leguizamo has one of the movie’s most unnerving scenes as he is forced to defend himself against another person who attempts to blow his cover, and watching the actor play it cool under such intense circumstances is thrilling to watch.

Then there’s Benjamin Bratt who plays Roberto Alcanio, Mazur’s contact and Escobar’s top lieutenant. Bratt makes Roberto into a man as charming as he is ruthless as well as someone far more interesting than the usual clichéd drug dealer we see in movies like these. You want to hate Roberto, but Bratt keeps you from doing that as you become as deeply involved in his family’s plight as he makes this character seem like a cool, down to earth dude even though he is also a vicious drug dealer.

There’s also Amy Ryan (“Gone Baby Gone”) who plays Mazur’s chief officer, Bonni Tischler. She’s a real fireball from start to finish as she barks out orders at her colleagues and has no interest in wasting time on frivolous matters. Ryan makes Bonni into a no-nonsense character who you do not want to mess with as she is not about to let those who work for her take advantage of a situation unless it is for a really, really, really good reason.

Also terrific is Diane Kruger who plays Mazur’s partner and undercover fiancée, and she really hold her own opposite Cranston as her character of Kathy plunges headlong into an assignment she initially seems fully unprepared for. Much like the German actress she played in “Inglorious Basterds,” Kruger (no relation to Freddy) shows a fearlessness as she unveils the many talents Kathy has to get close to the criminals, and she also portrays the perils of undercover work as her emotions threaten to get in the way.

“The Infiltrator” is nothing new or groundbreaking in movies, but it does get the job done thanks to terrific performances and some truly intense scenes that really leave you guessing as to what will happen. It also provides us with a main character who is as interested in taking down bankers who launder drug money as he is in going after drug dealers. With the “War on Drugs” continuing to be fought in a futile manner, watching this movie made me think of something George Carlin once said:

“Drug dealers aren’t afraid to die. They’re already killing each other every day on the streets by the hundreds. Drive-bys, gang shootings, they’re not afraid to die. Death penalty doesn’t mean anything unless you use it on people who are afraid to die. Like… THE BANKERS WHO LAUNDER THE DRUG MONEY!”

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Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.