Undercover Blues: Furman’s By-the-Numbers Thrills Enhanced by Cranston
Certain performers manage an incalculable hook into material otherwise hampered by cliché and familiarity, something accomplished with blissful ease by Bryan Cranston in the 1986 set The Infiltrator, which glances at an undercover agent attempting to take down the Medellin cartel in South Florida via a money laundering operation. Thankfully, this is in a similar vein and tone to Brad Furman’s 2011 breakout The Lincoln Lawyer, another ‘based on a true story’ dramatic thriller prizing glorified, uncustomary law enforcement related episodes, and less like the director’s embarrassing 2013 title Runner Runner. Reuniting with Cranston and John Leguizamo (who headlined 2007’s similarly barefaced title The Take), Furman directs a competent but otherwise characterless adaptation of Robert Mazur’s memoir (scripted by Ellen Brown Furman) which lands a few moments of high anxiety in-between a series of awkward filler scenes hampered by stiff supporting performances and stagey dialogue.
During Reagan’s war on drugs during the 1980s, Florida was a major gateway for the influx of illicit substances by Colombia’s Medellin cartel run by the notorious Pablo Escobar. U.S. Customs Official Robert Mazur (Cranston) heads up a major sting operation despite having the ability to retire, much to his wife Evelyn’s chagrin (Juliet Aubrey). Creating a shell investment company under the false identity of Robert Musella and working alongside fellow undercover agent Emir Abreu (Leguizamo), they attempt to court Escobar’s cohorts to funnel money through their company and then attain access to the cartel’s major players. As their plan unfolds, a series of unexpected twists transpire, such as a new addition to their team, Kathy (Diane Kruger), posing as Mazur’s fiancée in order for him to avoid fidelity compromising scenarios with criminals, and an unexpected empathy with people he becomes more attached to than he would have predicted.
At best, The Infiltrator is an entertaining but rather unsophisticated B-grade examination of a stranger-than-fiction crime chronicle, though nowhere near as sobering as Michael Cuesta’s Kill the Messenger (2014), set a decade later and detailing a journalist’s uncovering of the CIA’s activities during the period in question here. But when the film is not entirely focused on the grimly determined Cranston, who is basically playing the flip side of the same “Breaking Bad” coin as a man supporting his family through an elaborate persona established in a parallel universe, The Infiltrator is almost embarrassingly schlocky. A striking supporting cast flails in cliché, including Olympia Dukakis as Cranston’s worldly (and mistakenly campy) aunt, and Amy Ryan as his boss, chewing her way through tough talking Customs lingo.
The baddies are customarily stereotyped, such as smug bankers presented as vaguely sinister Middle Eastern types (Art Malik of True Lies and Said Taghmaoui), a demure but flamboyantly dressed homosexual played by Yul Vazquez, and a glamorous couple played by Elena Anaya and Benjamin Bratt.
The film’s major fault is in its depiction of believable connections between Cranston’s personas and the supposed bonding he has with Bratt, his own weary wife, his novice partner played by doe-eyed Diane Kruger, and his middling partner John Leguizamo (who disappears mid-way through the film after his cover is possibly compromised and suddenly pops up again for the resolution). Although Cranston channels the requisite amount of empathy, the screenplay doesn’t bother to develop those supposedly growing close to Mazur’s undercover personality. Two stand-out sequences which make-up for a bit of the slack include a brief appearance from Michael Pare, and an intense moment in a restaurant where Mazur’s wife witnesses a side of her husband she’s never seen during a desperate attempt to maintain his cover.
Cranston, one of those rare, glorified character actors who can still manage to disappear into his characterizations, does bring a necessary, believable everyman’s ability to the type of narrative often hyperbolized for modern male leads (it’s not hard to imagine this having been outfitted for Pacino, De Niro, or a slew of other serious faces). However, The Infiltrator is hardly as compelling or robust as it portends to be.