Mid-1980s, Florida. US Customs agent Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) specialises in deep undercover assignments, but his next gig — posing as a slick businessman, alongside Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger) and Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), in order to ensnare renowned Colombian drug lord/trafficker Pablo Escobar — may prove to be his most dangerous yet.
Bryan Cranston has form when it comes to dealing with ruthless drug cartels. He spent several years doing it to astonishing, Emmy-winning effect on Breaking Bad, and now here he is once again, doing deals with the kind of people who’d shoot you in the face as soon as give you the time of day. Not that this is ‘Breaking Bad: The Movie’, though. In fact, The Infiltrator sees Cranston very much on the side of the angels — ‘Breaking Good’, if you will — as a heroic, albeit beleaguered customs officer who has a brainwave: instead of following the drugs in an attempt to catch Pablo Escobar and his coterie of Colombian bad guys, follow the money instead.
So, leaving his wife and kids behind, he forges a new life for himself as Bob Musella, a fast-talking, big-haired, flamboyantly dodgy businessman who, through a series of encounters with contacts, gets ever closer to the heart of Escobar’s business. Along the way, Mazur is plunged into a series of life and death situations which director Furman — here making proper use of the talents of Cranston and John Leguizamo after blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em appearances in his otherwise excellent The Lincoln Lawyer — presents with a suitably sweaty, hazy sheen. Despite the huge houses, expensive cars and sharp suits, Furman is keen to show that this is not a world of glamour. It’s a dirty, dangerous, seedy world where a conversation with a potential snitch can suddenly turn into a drive-by shooting, or where a meeting with corrupt bankers can be endangered when the Feds’ clunky hidden tape recorder suddenly pops into plain view. One scene, in which Leguizamo’s cop is on the verge of being outed in front of the type of guys who don’t take kindly to lawmen, is a mini-masterclass in building tension.
Yet it’s hard not to think that we’ve seen all the undercover cop malarkey before — Donnie Brasco being the obvious example. Although one twist comes with the presence of the excellent Diane Kruger, as a fellow customs official who’s dragged away from her day-to-day desk job and thrust into the centre of the operation in the role of Cranston’s fiancée. Her relationship with Mazur — two souls suddenly thrust together into unimaginable danger — is a welcome wrinkle and, as they end up forging a genuine friendship with Bratt’s Mr Big and his wife, the surprising heart of the film.
But even if much of it seems familiar, Cranston is fantastic in his best big-screen role to date. As fun as he was in Trumbo, that was less a fully fleshed-out character, more of an arch impersonation, if you will. Here he has more room to put his own stamp on Mazur. Asking interesting questions about how far undercover officials should go in the name of duty — such as when Mazur is forced to adopt a tough-guy persona in front of his wife when he randomly runs into a Mob acquaintance at a restaurant — Cranston paints his official as a decent guy struggling desperately to retain his humanity in the midst of those who have none. It’s a heavyweight role (he’s in virtually every scene of the two-hour movie), one of those delicious turns where he’s almost always giving a performance within the performance, and may well see Cranston back in the conversation again come Academy Award season. If only the rest of the film was quite as good.
Often gripping, and elevated by Cranston’s superb central performance. But it’s hard not to feel like we’ve seen this before, often and done better.