'The Infiltrator': Film Review

Cranston's ace performance holds this mixed bag together.

Reteaming with director Brad Furman, Bryan Cranston plays a real-life federal agent who goes undercover to target drug lords and bankers.

Robert Mazur, aka Bob Musella, is a man living in two worlds: quiet wife-and-kids suburbia and the take-no-prisoners opulence and bloodshed of the international drug trade. That he's played by Bryan Cranston might be dismissed as post-Breaking Bad typecasting. But it's also smart casting; as a U.S. Customs agent leading an undercover sting of his own devising, Cranston turns every moment of duplicity, which is to say nearly every scene of The Infiltrator, into an emotionally textured high-wire act.

In a movie that's ultimately about the performance aspect of spycraft and its psychological toll, his reactions and feints make for compelling viewing. They don't, however, keep the fact-based intrigue from lapsing into boilerplate crime drama, as it frequently does amid the persuasively unsettling jolts, defusing rather than igniting the story's core conflict.

Broad Green's wide release, which reteams the actor with Lincoln Lawyer director Brad Furman, tracks a former accountant's knife-edge gambit to take down the Medellin Cartel. Furman, his cast and his behind-the-camera collaborators — beginning with screenwriter Ellen Brown Furman, half of a rare mother-and-son creative partnership — bring mid-'80s materialist excess and moral ambivalence into lurid focus. That the film finally proves less than the sum of its parts is unlikely to dissuade Cranston's fans, or audiences seeking a dark alternative to summer comedies and kids' fare, from catching it on the big screen.

At its strongest, Brown Furman's adaptation of Mazur's memoir wryly observes the ease with which Colombian drug lords and their stateside representatives secure legit banking channels for their ever-expanding profit. At its weakest, it hard-sells its themes and overdoes the tough-talking dialogue in ways that are so awkwardly self-conscious they stop the action cold.

That action consists chiefly of following the dirty money of Pablo Escobar's cartel, rather than taking the more conventional tack of tracing the cocaine flowing into Florida. It's a scheme conceived of by Tampa-based federal agent Mazur, who's promptly paired against his will with Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), an agent who embraces danger as his "drug of choice."

Their yin-yang dichotomy couldn't be spelled out more clearly, but it becomes increasingly evident that while their styles may differ, Mazur thrills to the chase no less than Abreu — to the chagrin of his understandably anxious wife. Juliet Aubrey is effectively understated in the underwritten role of Evelyn Mazur, whose worries take on new dimensions after the young and striking Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), an agent on her first undercover assignment, is tasked with playing her husband's fiancée.

In addition to his glamorous girlfriend, Mazur's high-flying money launderer "Musella" is outfitted with off-the-charts real estate, a Rolls-Royce and bespoke suits. (Given that the sting reportedly was a low-budget undertaking, the government apparently had lots of impounded luxury goods at its disposal.) While Abreu works the streets, Mazur/Musella works his way up the cartel's chain of command with the help of a trusted informant, Dominic (Joe Gilgun), who spouts graphic descriptions of the various ways the cartel could kill Mazur if he's found out. If his predictions don't quite pan out, a series of shocking killings does transpire as Mazur readies the nets for a bust of unprecedented proportions.

After gaining the trust of the flamboyantly unstable Javier Ospina, scion of a Colombian political family played with caricature-evading flounce and menace by Yul Vazquez, Mazur makes his way into the good graces of Escobar's chief distributor, Miami-based Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt, suavity epitomized).

The double-date friendship that arises between the faux engaged couple and the Alcainos (Elena Anaya plays Gloria) is designed to deliver an emotional charge that never arrives. Rather than letting the tensions play out in the layered performances of Cranston and Kruger, the movie hammers them home. Did we really need Bratt's Alcaino wielding a chef's knife on an unsuspecting onion while speaking emphatically of the importance of trust?

With Kruger's Kathy sparking to her role-playing in decisive ways and the sting culminating in an elaborately staged fake wedding, the story's complications and paradoxes are clear enough without such heavy-handed nudges. So is the sense of complicit indulgence amid the private jets and lavish gifts. The screenplay uses a lighter touch in depicting the ways a "full-service bank" accommodates criminal enterprises, and wisely refrains from turning its glimpses of the wider-picture backdrop — Reagan vs. Panama's Noriega — into history lessons.

As a doomed informant, Michael Paré gets to deliver a colorful spiel on politics that works as a concise character portrait. There are a number of memorable supporting turns, among them Simón Andreu’s low-level money handler, who watches Mazur with unspoken suspicion. He figures in a key worlds-colliding scene that finds Mazur trapped between his two identities, with explosive results. But not every role resonates. Though Olympia Dukakis plays Mazur's mob-savvy aunt with tough-cookie oomph, the part feels tacked on, while Amy Ryan and Jason Isaacs are utterly wasted as, respectively, Mazur's hardboiled supervisor and a prosecutor.

The story's mix of high and low comes through in Dinah Collin's costumes, the production design by Crispian Sallis and the dynamic lighting. Cinematographer Joshua Reis' experience on horror movies serves him well in his first major theatrical feature: from the garish palette of a bowling alley to set-piece interiors of the ostentatiously wealthy to the terrifying murk of a Santeria ritual that ends very badly, he finds the dread in each widescreen composition. Mostly it's in Cranston's eyes, ferociously undimmed, even when the screenplay and direction get in the way.

Distributor: Broad Green Pictures
Production: Broad Green Pictures presents a Good Films and Miriam Segal production in association with Road Less Traveled Productions and George Films and Lipsync
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Diane Kruger, John Leguizamo, Benjamin Bratt, Yul Vazquez, Juliet Aubrey, Elena Anaya, Amy Ryan, Joseph Gilgun, Olympia Dukakis, Saïd Taghmaoui, Art Malik, Rubén Ochandiano, Simón Andreu, Jason Isaacs, Michael Paré, Nabil Massad
Director:  Brad Furman
Screenwriter: Ellen Brown Furman, based on the book by Robert Mazur
Producers: Miriam Segal, Brad Furman, Don Sikorski, Paul M. Brennan
Executive producers: Martin Rushton-Turner, Camela Galano, Peter Hampden, Norman Merry, Kate Fasulo, Jill Morris, Scott Lastaiti, Bryan Cranston, Robert Mazur
Director of photography: Joshua Reis
Production designer: Crispian Sallis
Costume designer: Dinah Collin
Editors: David Rosenbloom, Luis Carballar, Jeff McEvoy 
Composer: Chris Hajian
Casting: Gail Stevens, Jeanne McCarthy

Rated R, 127 minutes