Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Infiltrator

Genre: Spy/Thriller
Premise: As the IRA moves in on one of their big targets, they begin to suspect that there’s a spy within the organization.
About: Josh Zetumer originally tried to break into Hollywood writing a bunch of epic period/gangster/mob type scripts, stuff like The Departed, but wasn’t having any success. So he reevaluated his approach and came up with a much simpler concept, writing about a couple of men up on a mountain battling one another. That script, Villain, is what broke him in, and I reviewed it about a year ago. Since then, Josh has been working on a lot of big projects around town, including the Robocop remake. When he pitched his take on The Infiltrator, the producers loved it and gave him a shot at the script, which is based on an “Atlantic Monthly” magazine article. Leonardo Dicaprio is attached to play the cold-hearted spy hunter, Scap.
Writer: Josh Zetumer
Details: Revised draft – June 5th, 2007 (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

I know The Infiltrator is not a bad script because it was recommended to me with high praise by one of the readers. Which is why I’m struggling to figure out why I didn’t like it. It may have something to do with my lack of excitement over the straight spy genre in general. I like the high concept spy genre, stuff like “Salt” (the original script – not the movie). I like the comedy spy genre, stuff like “The True Memoirs Of An International Assassin.” Actually that's more about hit men.  But the point is there's something that feels – I don’t know – cliché to me about the straight spy genre. And that bias was on full display during my read of The Infiltrator.

It’s 1993. Kevin Fulton leads a double life. He tells his wife that he’s a good man, an honest man, a working man. But the truth is, he’s anything but. Fulton works for the Irish Republican Army, which is, if you’re to believe the media and movies, a really nasty organization. A typical Sunday for Fulton might include blowing up a political bigwig along with his family, which in my experience doesn’t make your organization very endearing.

After one of their missions goes sour and their captain is killed, the IRA wants to bring in the mysterious and elusive Scap as the new team leader. Fulton, who thought he was going to head up the group, is pissed. So when Scap joins the team, he gives him the cold shoulder. Which is fine by Scap, because he doesn’t like Fulton either.

(SPOILERVILLE) But it turns out Fulton has more of a reason to be pissed than we thought. Fulton is a British spy! And he’s working his way through the organization to try and take it down, Fulton style.

It would appear he’s doing a pretty good job. UNTIL. He realizes that Scap is the IRA’s number one spy hunter! Scap was specifically assigned to this group to take Fulton down! I think! I’m not totally sure, which I’ll get to in a minute.

Their team’s mission, if they choose to accept it, is to recruit money out of some American bigshot so they have the cash to fund more invasions and murders and bomb plots. I think. If I’m being honest, I’m not sure, because the plot was really confusing. But I don’t think that stuff matters. The marquee here is the showdown between Scap and Fulton. And it’s not looking good for the good guys (which is Fulton) (I think).

Okay so, I didn’t like this script. And the main reason I didn’t like it is because I never knew what was going on. Now whether this is because I don’t understand the genre, or because the story wasn’t clear enough, I’ll never know. What I do know is that for the majority of the read I felt like the guy trying to get into the huddle to hear the play but could never manage to squeeze my way in. “Wait a minute, what’s the play? What’s going on? Hold up, can you repeat that again? Hey guys!?  Guys!!?"

Let’s start with Fulton and Scap. There’s a scene, midway through the movie, where Fulton’s undercover team tells him, “They brought Scap in to expose you. He’s a spyhunter.”

Okay, so hold up. If they brought Scap in because they knew Fulton was a spy, why doesn’t Scap just kill Fulton right away? Why wait? Is this some spy protocol I don’t know about? I’m not being facetious. I really want to know. I guess if they keep Fulton alive they can try and extract some information out of him before sending him to that big spy agency in the sky? But to me it didn’t make sense.

What made even less sense, however, was that Fulton continued on with his undercover mission after knowing that the IRA’s number one spy hunter was not only IN HIS UNIT, but also KNEW HE WAS A SPY. Am I the only one who thinks this is suicide? Yeah, go hang out with the notorious spy hunter who looks like he blends human flesh into his smoothies every morning. That makes sense.

The next big problem for me was that I had absolutely ZERO idea what the story was about. Virtually nothing was explained other than they were supposed to meet a rich American dude named Cavanaugh. The whole time I kept asking, “Where are they going? What are they doing? Why are they doing it? What is the plan? What is their objective?” I had no idea. So every scene was me playing catch-up, which would've been fine if I were trying to catch up on some cool mystery. But instead I’m playing catch up on things like, “What is this scene about?” Or “Where are we?”

Is this common for the spy genre? Where nothing is revealed and every scene is a black hole that all information gets sucked into? If so, I don’t think I can ever like spy flicks. It would be like watching the final sequence of Star Wars without having the benefit of the mission prep scene beforehand. If you don’t know what the characters are specifically trying to accomplish, how can you become invested in their pursuit?

That explains nearly every beat in Infiltrator. They need to blow up a politician and his family. Why? They meet Cavanaugh. Why? They’re asked to kill a man for Cavanaugh. Why? They’re asked to go kill a man on a plane. Why? I guess the mystery is supposed to be part of the fun. But all it did was frustrate me, as I never once knew what was going on.

Now on the plus side, Zetumer has nailed a key aspect that gets scripts made into movies. He’s created two badass characters and pits them against one another. Actors love this shit. They love it. And if actors love it, they’re going to sign on. And when big actors sign on to your movie, your movie gets made. True this one hasn’t been made yet, but DiCaprio’s still attached and I’m guessing, from what I’ve read, that the lack of movement has more to do with there being no discernable plot yet, and not with the characters.

Now I’ll concede a couple of things before I go. I don’t know this genre very well. So I may not get why certain things are done the way they are. My boredom could have also lead to me missing key plot points and therefore not understanding what was going on. And there’s a chance that one of my main problems with the script – whether Scap knew Fulton was a spy or not – was explained by Scap NOT knowing Fulton was a spy. Or at least I’m hoping that’s the case. Cause I still don’t understand why Scap didn’t just kill Fulton as soon as he knew he was a spy.

I was in the dark too often on this one guys. I didn’t enjoy it. Did you?

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Maximize your scene’s potential. If you write a scene with a rat trying to get some cheese, and you show the rat casually scurrying up, smelling the cheese, taking the cheese, and eating the cheese, only to have a cat leap out of nowhere and pounce on him, I’m going to be bored with the first 90% of that scene, because I never knew there was a threat involved. But if you show me that the rat knows there’s a cat somewhere in the room BEFORE he goes after the cheese, now you have me interested the entire time, since I understand what the threat is before the pursuit. Infiltrator never lets us know about the cat. The threats always come afterwards, making everything leading up to the pursuit unexciting and uneventful.