To be a great U.S. Customs infiltrator who goes undercover for one of the largest drug organizations in the world, you have to be able to sell an identity other than your own. You have to sell that you are exactly the person they want you to be: someone who possesses no moral center. Yet, these infiltrators are still people with families and an inherent willingness to do well. So as they get deeper into a seedy underbelly that most people would never want to experience, they wrestle with the monsters brewing within them. And all the while, they have to act as if they’ve done this all before.
So, who then is better to perform “The Infiltrator” who brought down Pablo Escobar’s cartel than Bryan Cranston, possibly the best actor of internal moral conflicts working today?
Starring Cranston as real-life agent Robert Mazur, the film follows the Florida-based agent as he is assigned to the biggest undertaking of its kind, in not only infiltrating Escobar’s cartel as a trusted money launderer, but as an acquaintance to many of the highly ranked people working alongside Escobar.
Directed with finesse, if not with the most eye-catching visuals, Brad Furman creates a solid film in the same vein as his most popular prior film “The Lincoln Lawyer.” Neither “The Infiltrator” nor “The Lincoln Lawyer” are particularly original films, but they know that the appeal of both rests in the charisma of their leading men. Where “The Lincoln Lawyer” started the rebirth of Matthew McConaughey (known as the McConaissance), “The Infiltrator” allows Cranston to ride his “Breaking Bad” and “Trumbo” acclaim right on through this taut crime drama.
In every meeting Mazur goes on, we see the thoughts behind the facade Cranston is showing. We see his alter ego, Bob Musella, talking up his business prowess and showing off his gaudy lifestyle, such as his New York City estate and his constant visits to strip clubs for “business meetings.” Yet, we also see the family man with a loving wife and two young children trying to keep his work life separate from his home life. In every lift of Cranston’s face and every sudden stop in his movement, the audience can tell without a single word of dialogue what is going through Mazur’s mind. It’s like watching Walter White all over again, and that alone is worth the admission.
While the film constantly magnifies its high stakes, as it appears Mazur and his partners on the case — Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) and Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger) — can be uncovered at any moment, the film never feels surprising. It’s the same as any other gangster film or crime procedural focused around drugs. The sleazy clubs, the sudden murders, the potential double crossing — it’s all been done before. And done better.
For example, there are some recent films that follow the same basic plot structure as “The Infiltrator.” The film has the similarly comedic but mostly intense highwire of emotions found in 2013’s Oscar-nominated “American Hustle.” In both, the central characters are performing as if they’re someone else in order to not get found out by the criminals, but along the way, realize that maybe the criminals they work with aren’t as bad as they seem. Or, alternatively, the rich and decadent lifestyle they experience may just be that persuasive. Well, that is until people start to die all around them. “The Infiltrator” and “American Hustle” are typical stories of people losing themselves and trying to find their way out.
The film also bears a similarity to last year’s “Black Mass.” Both center on a chameleon-like performance that hinges on the ability to say one thing but physically show the opposite. But where Johnny Depp in “Black Mass” used a hefty amount of makeup to complete the transformation, Cranston doesn’t need the help of any special effects to sell his character.
Cranston’s performance is good enough on its own to convince the audience he is Mazur, not just a half-hearted imitation of him. And like any skilled infiltrator, Cranston proves there is more to a character than meets the eye. It’s too bad the script feels so by-the-numbers. As it is, though, as long as Cranston is on the screen, the audience will be duped into thinking it’s all real: the mark of any great infiltrator.
Levi Hill covers film. Contact him at [email protected].