Though “Breaking Bad” and its antihero Walter White are no more, it’s been a great year for Bryan Cranston. Less than two months ago he played a spectacular LBJ in HBO’s “All the Way,” and now he’s Robert Mazur, the federal agent who went undercover and cozied up to top brass in the Medellín cartel.
In “The Infiltrator,” Florida-based U.S. Customs Agent Mazur has, like Cranston, a flair for convincing performances. But the stakes are about as high as they get: If Mazur’s turn isn’t spot-on persuasive, he’ll be gruesomely tortured and killed by Colombian drug lords.
The tautly-written screenplay by Ellen Brown Furman is based on Mazur’s eponymous book set in 1986, in which the unassuming former IRS accountant plunges himself into the drug trafficking world of Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar. In order to “chase the money at the top,” he goes undercover as Bob Musella, a high-living, mustachioed money launderer with ties to the Mob. Turns out this is a role that the low-key Mazur was born to play.
Initially Mazur teams up — and clashes with — impulsive fellow agent Emir Abreu, played terrifically, and bilingually, by John Leguizamo. Mazur’s a serious and unassuming family man, while Abreu is a cocky street agent who likes a good prank. When one of Escobar’s men offers Mazur a hooker, the devoted husband underneath the slick disguise awkwardly concocts a story that he’s engaged, which leads to his next partner: a rookie federal agent posing as his intended. Diane Kruger nimbly plays Mazur’s fiancée Kathy Ertz. The two are artful posers, gaining the trust of Escobar’s top lieutenant Robert Alcaino, suavely portrayed by Benjamin Bratt, and Alcaino’s ebullient wife Gloria (Elena Anaya).
It’s a vicious and suspicious drug ring (aren’t they all?) so Mazur, Ebreu and Ertz’s ability to fool so many inside the cocaine hierarchy is a massive achievement. Their risky efforts lead to indictments of more than 100 drug lords, along with the corrupt bankers who made their dirty money clean.
Drug thrillers can be among the more predictable genres — plenty of sleaze, nasty threats and grisly whacking, and, of course, the obligatory scenes at strip clubs. “The Infiltrator” follows some of that played-out playbook, but also effectively dials up the nerve-wracking tension. What elevates it to a higher level is the quality of its key performances, by Cranston, Leguizamo, Kruger and Bratt. Amy Ryan is also top-notch in a smaller role as Bonni Tischler, the trio’s brassy boss. One of the most memorable supporting performances comes from Yul Vazquez, as sociopathic money launderer Javier Ospina.
Director Brad Furman (“The Lincoln Lawyer”) re-creates the mid-1980s with telling fashion and coiffure details, bolstered by a great funk soundtrack. Joshua Reis’s terrific cinematography, aided by the authentic-looking production design of Crispian Sallis, intensifies the sense of place and time. (Early on, when Mazur is undercover at a bowling alley on a smaller operation, he rocks a soul patch, chomps gum and flirts with a waitress sporting a torn, off-the shoulder shirt straight out of “Flashdance.” Yup, it’s the mid-’80s all right.)
A few characters feel extraneous. Mazur’s Aunt Vicky (Olympia Dukakis) is a luxury-loving realtor who urges her straight-arrow nephew to skim a bit off the top in his drug busts. Mazur pulls her into a meeting with Alcaino that rings false. While Dukakis plays the role with verve, her scenes feel tangential at best.
The moment when Mazur’s phony fiancée meets his real wife feels shoehorned in just so the two can have a short but meaningful exchange. Their faux nuptials looming, Ertz goes to Mazur’s modest house to pick up a mothballed tux which the federal agent hasn’t worn since his real wedding, presumably about a decade before. Wouldn’t his wealthy, swaggering alter ego — who dons fancy Italian suits and pocket scarves for dinner — wear more stylish wedding gear than old formalwear, especially seeing as the guest list is made of shady bankers and drug trade baddies who can sniff out an impostor at the slightest provocation?
Despite these occasional missteps, the film doesn’t shy away from implicating the CIA in the drug trade, or from the role of cocaine money in funding wars and international conflicts. Bratt’s Alcaino observes “America put me in this business.” The film also intriguingly suggests the sympathy and conflicted emotions that undercover agents can feel for the targets they befriend and betray.
At times, “The Infiltrator” feels like a movie we’ve seen before, but deft performances and Furman’s sharp sense of the era transform it into an engrossing drama.