‘The Infiltrator’ Review: Bryan Cranston Breaks Good in Generic Drug Trade Drama
I really wanted to write this review without referencing Breaking Bad. “Don’t reduce an actor to the iconic role he’s known for,” I told myself. But how could I avoid it? The man behind meth kingpin Walter White is now playing an undercover U.S. customs agent trying to capture Pablo Escobar; the anti-hero has become the hero. Such a role reversal sounded intriguing at first, a chance for Cranston to explore another perspective on the drug business, an opportunity to flex his good guy muscles again. But unfortunately, once you go bad, going good is a lot less captivating.
In director Brad Furman’s The Infiltrator, Cranston portrays Robert Mazur, the real-life federal agent whose undercover work helped bring down the money-laundering business of Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel and the banks behind it. After capturing local drug dealers in Tampa, Florida, Mazur and his partner Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) decide to go bigger and follow the money to get to the top guys of the cartel. Crafting undercover identities, Mazur creates Bob Musella, a businessman with connections to the Mafia, and Emir uses an informant to make ties with those closest to Escobar. Bob gains the trust of the cartel boss’ money brokers, Javier Ospina (Yul Vazquz), Gonzalo Mora Sr. (Simón Andreu), and Gonzalo Mora Jr. (Rubén Ochandiano), of BCCI bank mangers, and eventually the cartel’s top cocaine transporter, Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt).
As Bob gets more and more embedded in his undercover work, things take a turn for the worse, and the obvious. Robert Mazur, a nice guy with a loving wife and two kids, starts to become more like Bob Musella, a hot-tempered crime boss who’s chauffeured around in a Rolls Royce wearing stylish 1980s suits. It’s exactly what you expect to happen in a crime movie where the good guy gets a taste of the dangerous life and struggles to maintain two identities. He gets in too deep, puts work before family, his wife questions his fidelity, and so on.
In one scene where Mazur takes his wife Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) to last-minute anniversary dinner, he has to switch personas suddenly when Gonzalo Mora Sr. spots him. The passive Robert suddenly becomes the pompous Bob, telling Gonzalo that he’s taken out Evelyn, who he says is his secretary, for her birthday. When a Happy Anniversary cake arrives, Bob makes a scene by yelling at the waiter and angrily smashing his face into the cake – what a Mafia money-launderer would do, not a nice Florida husband.
As expected as the scene is, it’s also one of the most entertaining moments of the movie because it showcases Cranston at his most unhinged. The wild-eyed, “I am the danger” Cranston is his most thrilling persona, especially when juxtaposed with his calmer, passive side. But The Infiltrator doesn’t give us enough of that and doesn’t offer Cranston enough opportunities to explore his range between the two personalities. And when he does get a few rare explosive moments, they’re clouded by the dull, generic beats of the rest of the movie.
Everything in The Infiltrator is something we’ve seen before. There’s the typical drug montage, showing the main characters slowly move up the food chain as the animated maps and postcards establish their travel across the globe. There’s the worried wife telling her stubborn husband, “Promise me this is the last one.” There’s the mysterious drug trafficker sitting in a darkened movie theater smoking a cigar. There’s the coked-up middleman who manically shoots a guy in the face for betraying him. There’s a chase sequence in the second act where the paranoid protagonist finds out someone is on his tail. Had The Infiltrator come out 15 years ago, maybe it would feel a little fresher. In 2016 do we really need another narcotics drama, especially one with no new aesthetics, free of complex characters and emotionally-driven relationships?
While Cranston’s double identity here is far less compelling than his Walter White, his performance is still the best thing The Infiltrator has going for it. Amy Ryan appears as DEA boss Bonni Tischler – I say “appears” because she’s only in a handful of scenes where she does nothing but give her best tough-as-nails female boss. Jason Isaacs shows up in two or three scenes as Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Jackowski. Diane Kruger is as bland as ever as Mazur’s undercover wife, while Joseph Gilgun (AMC’s Preacher) plays a relatively uninteresting criminal released from prison to help Mazur go undercover. Leguizamo has a few good moments as the charismatic, high-energy Emir, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen from him before.
The Infiltrator isn’t necessarily bad, it just has nothing unique, compelling, or memorable to offer in its over two-hour runtime. If you want an intense examination of agents infiltrating a drug cartel, watch Sicario. And if you want to see Cranston caught in a tug-of-war of complex morals, just rewatch Breaking Bad.