Here’s the good news about hiring Bryan Cranston to play an ordinary family man leading a double life in the drug business: He can definitely pull it off. After five seasons as Walter White, the chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin in Breaking Bad, Cranston didn’t merely slip from one persona to the next, but revealed how the residue from each role bleeds into the other — he was never the mild-mannered Walter White again and never fully the almost mythically powerful “Heisenberg,” either. Over time, his identity underwent a soul-coarsening transformation and he become someone else entirely, perhaps the person he was always meant to be.
Now here’s the bad new about hiring Bryan Cranston to play an ordinary family man leading a double life in the drug business: Your movie will invite unfavorable comparisons to Breaking Bad, from reviews such as this one. In The Infiltrator, Cranston stars as Robert Mazur, a U.S. customs agent who goes undercover as a money launderer in a sting operation against Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel. Going undercover changes him, too, because “Bob Musella,” his alter-ego, has to show a little toughness and swagger in order to play the part convincingly. The danger is palpable, since one minor slip-up, especially among the paranoid sociopaths in Escobar’s organization, could mean death for Mazur and his family. But he’s not Walter White/”Heisenberg.” He doesn’t lose himself in the work.
That surface approach affects the entire movie, which never lacks for tension and escalating stakes, but forever seems to be going through the motions. Based on Mazur’s book of the same name, The Infiltrator concerns itself so much with detailing the ins-and-outs of undercover work that it never quite settles on what it’s trying to reveal, other than the bravery of those involved. Given the option to retire in 1986, Cranston’s Mazur opts to risk his life (and his family’s) for one last job, despite being paired with Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), an agent whose zeal for the work borders on recklessness. But it’s Abreu’s informant who has given them an opening in this criminal underworld, so he has no choice but to wriggle through it.
With tailored suits and a Rolls Royce — looking just a porkpie hat away from Heisenberg — Mazur smoothly assumes the role of “Bob Musella,” a mobbed-up businessman with a street toughness that Mazur fakes convincingly. In setting up his money-laundering scheme, Mazur builds trust with members of both Escobar’s operation, like Miami-based distributor Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), and representatives from the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (B.C.C.I.), who knowingly agree to involve themselves in this illicit business. When Mazur screws up and claims to have a fiancée, Kathy Urtz (Diane Kruger), an agent who’s never gone undercover, steps up to play the part. Her presence makes them all the more vulnerable, but their fake-wedding plans also present an ingenious opportunity for an endgame.
Much of The Infiltrator is pure drug-thriller boilerplate: the “Sabotage”-video facial hair, the gaudy Scarface fashions, the peacock showiness of the visual style, the on-the-nose popular music cues. (A moratorium on Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman,” please, especially in movies set over a decade after it was recorded.) Director Brad Furman has proven himself to be a solid craftsman — The Lincoln Lawyer, for one, is a John Grisham-style courtroom thriller done right — but here he’s like the “Bob Musella” of directors, skillfully imitating masters like Martin Scorsese and P.T. Anderson without persuasively offering himself as the real thing.
He and his screenwriter mother, Ellen Brown Furman, do know how to spin a good yarn, however. At its best, The Infiltrator makes the audience keenly aware of undercover work as a sustained piece of performance art, like the opening night of a play that must go perfectly or the curtains will fall. Cranston and Kruger, who’s terrific as his inexperienced but resourceful partner, play agents who are thrown into situations where they have to improvise without breaking character and the Furmans make us sweat along with them. They’re still new members of Escobar’s extended family and thus under constant scrutiny and threat, which at a minimum keeps the film thrumming with tension.
And yet The Infiltrator never settles on a specific point of view, despite having a unique sideways angle into the Escobar story. In the end, Mazur is not a complicated Walter White-type antihero, but a professional who does better than expected at keeping his home- and work- selves in separate corners. Through the B.C.C.I. scandal, the Furmans hint at the capitalist instinct to trade on human misery for profit, but they don’t hammer that point home, either. They even miss the comic absurdity of staging a fake wedding ceremony as an elaborate sting. Just telling Mazur’s story isn’t enough — they need to have a reason to do it.