It’s the 1980s, and Pablo Escobar’s Medillin cartel is smuggling between 70 and 80 tons of cocaine into the United States on a monthly basis. With numerous government agencies and task forces failing to stem the tide, US Customs Agent Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) suggests an alternate approach. If following the drugs isn’t producing the desired results, what happens when you star following the money?
A seasoned operative with years of undercover experience, Mazur sheds his affable family man persona to become Robert Musella, a smooth-talking businessman with a sprawling mansion, a brand new Rolls Royce and a closet full of custom-tailored suits – not to mention a talent for laundering huge sums of cash through his various companies and holdings. Fellow agent Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) has already worked his way into the cartel’s lower levels, and soon he’s introducing his partner to some of the highest ranking members of Escobar’s operation and paving the way for Mazur’s alter-ego to take control of increasingly larger amounts of Medillin money.
As Mazur carouses and cajoles his way into the inner circle, he finds himself struggling to reconcile his new identity – who smokes cigars and dines at exclusive restaurants with Escobar’s most trusted enforcers – with the responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood. Matters are complicated even further when Mazur is paired with Agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger) playing the role of his fiancée, who he invented after refusing the services of a high-class prostitute paid for by his new associates. Ertz may have the necessary training, but she has zero undercover experience, a fact which doesn’t sit well with Mazur – or his real-life wife Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey), who isn’t exactly thrilled with the pretty young blonde her husband is spending so much time with.
In terms of its storytelling, The Infiltrator offers very little that we haven’t seen before. Hollywood has churned out numerous films about undercover operations that threaten to crumble when the inside man forgets that he’s only meant to be playing a character, and this one doesn’t stray too far from the path. As an authentic friendship develops between Mazur and Escobar’s chief lieutenant Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), we know that Mazur will eventually be wracked with guilt over his decision to betray his new pal – because we’ve seen this scenario before, most notably with Johnny Depp and Al Pacino in Donnie Brasco.
But The Infiltrator isn’t about the narrative so much as it’s about the undeniable rush of adrenaline that comes with playing such a dangerous game. This isn’t the first time that Cranston has stepped into the shoes of a mild-mannered husband and father who rises to the highest levels of the illegal drug trade, and there’s an interesting bit of symmetry between Walter White and Robert Mazur. But whereas the former constantly found himself in over his head, Mazur is the opposite – he knows precisely how much danger is lurking around every corner, and he almost seems to revel in it.
Kruger and Leguizamo are both solid as Mazur’s support network, albeit with two very different approaches to conflict resolution, while Bratt turns in some of his best work in years, playing Alcaino with the perfect mixture of menace and warmth. There’ s also Preacher‘s Joseph Gilgun, nearly unrecognizable beneath a thick beard and even thicker New York accent, stealing multiple scenes as an ex-con pretending to be Musella’s bodyguard. On the other end of the spectrum, Amy Ryan is criminally under-utilized as Mazur’s humorless commanding officer, and Jason Isaacs has a “blink and you’ll miss it” supporting role as a prosecutor.
Director Brad Furman previously helmed the engrossing courtroom drama The Lincoln Lawyer and the uneven gambling thriller Runner Runner, and his latest effort falls somewhere in between. Cranston’s magnetic performance elevates The Infiltrator above its formulaic plot and predictable narrative, resulting in a serviceable ’80s drug thriller whose cast is far more impressive than the film they’re stuck in.
This fact-based undercover drama boasts plenty of style and a magnetic performance from Cranston, but the predictable cookie-cutter narrative is something we've seen too many times before. There's a joy to watching Cranston revel in his dark side, but the film suffers when the focus shifts to other characters.