[Hint: spoiler alert if you still plan to watch the series, Breaking Bad]
The last time a Bryan Cranston character became involved in drugs [spoiler alert: don’t read this paragraph if you’re still watching Breaking Bad!] it ended in death and destruction that didn’t turn out very well for the main character. In The Infiltrator, Cranston switches out teacher-turned-drug lord Walter White, for Bob Mazur, a true-life undercover narcotics agent for U.S. customs.
The film is based on Mazur’s autobiography of how, in the 1980s, he managed to go deeper undercover than anyone before him. At the time, the U.S. was failing in its war on drugs, particularly in preventing it from making its way into the country from Colombia. After a successful covert operation in Tampa Bay in Florida, Mazur decides he wants to do one more uber-sting before retirement.
The opportunity presents itself when one of his fellow agents, Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), receives a tip from an informant that could lead to the leaders of the Medellín cartels, all the way to notorious kingpin, Pablo Escobar. It’s decided that Mazur will leave behind his family one last time and become a rich money launderer with swag, Bob Musella. U.S. Customs pulls out all the stops to create an elaborate false identity along with companies that will hold up to scrutiny, Musella Enterprises Inc. and Sunbird Airlines. Abreu becomes Musella’s sidekick, Emilio Dominguez.
Together the two slowly make their way up the cartel line, becoming the trusted launderers for the Colombians. Access to the top leaders isn’t easy, however. Mazur is a family man but playing undercover becomes even harder when he has to lie that he has a fiancée in order to get out of sleeping with a stripper organised for him by one of the mid-level drug cartel brokers. Enter Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), an inexperienced but talented and charming fellow agent who becomes Mazur’s invaluable partner, the reliable counter to Abreu’s slightly too daring chance-taking.
The ‘couple’ have to play a dangerous long-term game that targets not only drug kingpins, but the banks and other companies that aid them. And, it’s not only the threat of violence and death if they’re found out that complicates the operation. When they finally meet and befriend Escobar’s right-hand man, drug baron Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt) and his wife Gloria (Elena Anaya), a deeper connection is made and it becomes harder to separate fact from fiction and keep an emotional distance from people who seem all too human.
In The Infiltrator, director Brad Furman (Lincoln Lawyer) creates a suspenseful story that hails much older films. The plot sustains tension throughout, building towards an electrifying climax. Without Bryan Cranston, though, the film would be good but forgetful. Breaking Bad made of Cranston a much sought-after actor, and rightly so. Walter White was one of the most intense and layered villains ever created and while The Infiltrator sees Cranston on the opposite side of the drug trade, he creates the same kind of depth in Bob Mazur. It is a role he slides into with ease: the internal conflict of bringing down a massive criminal operation but at the same time, betraying people who have become his friends. Like Walter White, Mazur has to pull off the ultimate deception, with both he and Kathy having to give Oscar-worthy performances if they’d like to keep their heads. Both Cranston and Diane Kruger deliver marvellously while Bratt and Anaya provide solid supports in creating characters who aren’t pure evil, but complex humans who can form loyal friendships and show love.
The Infiltrator is a smart, compelling drama with plenty of thrills and emotional moments. It is all you could want in a narcotics takedown story. Covert listening in with old-school wires taped to chests. Assassinations. Drug lords in flamboyant outfits and gold chains living it up large, and impending danger.
Director: Brad Furman
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Diane Kruger, John Leguizamo, Benjamin Bratt, Elena Anaya
Rating: 4 out of 5
SA release date: 16 September 2016