Bryan Cranston became a household name on cable’s “Breaking Bad” by playing a decent family man seduced by the the money, violence and power of the drug trade.
In “The Infiltrator,” he works an interesting variation on that setup. Here he’s a real-life lawman who goes deep undercover to undermine Pablo Escobar’s Columbian cocaine syndicate.
Director Brad Furman’s film (the screenplay is by his mother, Ellen Brown Furman) is a sort of police procedural enriched by intriguing psychological conflicts.
Set in the mid-1980s in Florida, “The Infiltrator” centers on Robert Mazur, a federal agent who comes to believe that seizing cocaine shipments is a losing strategy since there’s always more coming through the pipeline. A far more promising approach, Mazur believes, is to follow the money. The heads of the cartel can afford to lose drugs; they deeply resent losing their cash.
With the approval of his bosses (among them Amy Ryan and Jason Isaacs), Mazur creates an alter ego, shady businessman Bob Musella, who dresses well, lives big and has created a plan for laundering millions in the cartel’s ill-gotten gains. He begins by befriending the hard-drinking, whore-running street-level drug chieftains and rung by rung works his way up to the biggest movers in the Escobar cartel.
This is all very tricky, and Bob eventually finds it a challenge to separate the venal but charming Musella from his real life with an astonishingly understanding wife (Juliet Aubrey) and two kids. It must mess with your mind going from a coke-fuelled party in a topless joint to a cozy nest in the ‘burbs.
So that he won’t have to betray his wife by sleeping with a hooker (a gift from one of his new drug buddies), Bob claims to be engaged. A fellow agent, Kathy (Diane Kruger), must then step up to portray his trophy fiance. She’s a knockout, and you’ve got to wonder if under the pressure of their shared deception the two agents might not slip into a relationship of a more than professional nature.
There’s one horrifying moment when — out for an anniversary dinner with the Missus — Bob is spotted by one of his low-life pals and must immediately assume the arrogant persona of Bob Musella, introducing his wife as his secretary and humiliating/assaulting a waiter for his alleged incompetence. Mrs. Mazur is horrified but smart enough to go along with the ruse.
Along the way there are numerous colorful characters. John Leguizamo plays Emir, another undercover agent and as energized by risk as Bob is adverse to it. Emir is more than happy to drink the bad guys’ booze, snort their drugs and bang their women, all in the name of duty.
Yul Vazquez is skin-crawlingly spectacular as a sexually fluid mid-level drug trafficker oozing arrogance and outrageous flamboyance.
And late in the film Bob and Kathy hit the jackpot by making the acquaintance of Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), the cartel’s top money manager. Like Bob Mazur in his private life, Alcaino is a genuine family man and a generous, intelligent and thoughtful friend.
And therein lies a problem — Bob and Kathy both like Alcaino and his charming wife (Elena Anaya). When the hammer finally comes down their feelings of triumph will be diluted by pangs of regret.
“The Infiltrator” runs for two hours, but it has been excellently paced. Furman has some fun toying with a garish mid-80’s “Miami Vice” palette, but for the most part he lets his terrific actors present the tale with a minimum of directorial flourishes.
But the heart of the film is Cranston, an actor capable of performing several character layers at once. He’s brilliant.