What is it about watching Bryan Cranston lie to people that we find so damn compelling? Many people, myself included, will list Breaking Bad as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, television show of all time. Cranston’s increasingly duplicitous turn as Walter White earned him 3 consecutive Emmy wins, a first for any lead actor in a cable series and only the second time that’s occurred with any actor in Emmy history, so it’s fair to say the guy is good at playing complex characters. Cranston’s newest performance in The Infiltrator almost begs for a comparison to Breaking Bad. After all, both stories feature Bryan Cranston as a two-faced individual, in over his head, operating in the criminal underworld of drug trafficking. But making that comparison would be misleading; while Cranston brings similar gravitas to his role, this is no Breaking Bad. A more apt comparison would be to juxtapose The Infiltrator against modern classic gangster movies like Goodfellas. And while The Infiltrator is about as stereotypical a crime movie as it gets, Cranston’s performance, pinned by a great supporting cast and an incredible true story, elevates The Infiltrator above its cliches to be a very enjoyable sit.
Cranston plays Robert Mazur, a U.S. Customs Drug Enforcement Agent in 1985 Tampa who has made a career as an expert undercover operative, known for his attention to detail and understanding of money laundering. When the opportunity to infiltrate Pablo Escobar’s ranks presents itself, Mazur shirks his family and an impending retirement to go undercover one last time to put the kingpin’s lieutenants behind bars. To do so, he will have to work with a wildcard of a partner (John Leguizamo), fake a marriage with a rookie operative (Diane Kruger), and earn the trust of one of Escobar’s top distributors (Benjamin Bratt). How far will Robert have to go to prove his allegiance to the faction? How much will he have to sacrifice? And will he ever be the same if he makes it out of this alive?
If this wasn’t a true story based on Mazur’s own account of the events, one might say that The Infiltrator is a paint-by-numbers story that borrows heavily from films that explore these ideas much more substantially. All of the standard gangster flick tropes are present: there’s a montage of money changing hands set to an upbeat rock and roll soundtrack, dialogue from Mazur’s wife asking him to promise that “this is the last time”, in-fighting between officers over who has who’s back, one-take tracking shots following characters from behind, expository dialogue directed at Mazur telling him that “these guys are crazy, you have no idea who you’re dealing with”, wild chromatic filters and editing, … I could go on. In this way, The Infiltrator feels like the greatest hits of every decent crime movie ever made. In fact, there were points where I felt like critical scenes were missing, eschewed in lieu of keeping a brisk pace, and the only reason why that wasn’t a death blow to the film was because we’ve seen those scenes before in other movies.
But despite the predictability in the story and its telling, the film is able to attain that nail-biting, anything-can-happen peak at several points throughout its 127-minute runtime. This is due in large part to the masterful cast, especially Bryan Cranston. He goes all-in to portray Bob Mazur and his subtle performance anchors the entire film in reality when it could have easily felt trite and forgettable. There’s a scene between Cranston and John Leguizamo, who is always fun to watch and particularly good here as the Jesse Pinkman analogue, where the characters are challenging each other’s working styles while undercover. Leguizamo’s character is a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, do-anything-to-survive type of guy, whereas Cranston’s character is calculating and risk averse. As tempers ratchet up in debriefing after a close call, Cranston is so in-character that he knocks a lit cigar out of Leguizamo’s hand in anger, burning embers flying everywhere. Both men stay in the moment, screaming at each other, not backing down from their motivations, despite the unplanned circumstance. It is a small, surprising delight that speaks to the devotion to the craft on display. Shining similarly is Benjamin Bratt, who instills a sense of pathos into the life of the criminals Mazur is trying to bring down. Brett’s depiction of a man who abandoned his dreams as a chef because he could more easily support his family in the drug trade adds a shade of gray to what and who we as an audience should be rooting for, which makes the climax of the film all the more impactful.
The Infiltrator may not be a seminal film or even one that we remember a few years from now. But it is absolutely worth seeing for the enthralling true story and great performances. If you like true crime and/or gangster movies, definitely check out The Infiltrator.
The Infiltrator opens in Philly theaters today.