Bryan Cranston occasionally turns up in Seinfeld reruns as the dentist who dated Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Elaine. Many years after that memorable supporting role, Cranston ascended to the “A” list as a high school science teacher who produces meth in Breaking Bad. He continued to add to his impressive resume playing LBJ in All the Way on Broadway, where he won a Tony Award, and repeated that role in the HBO production. He gets to play another real life character in The Infiltrator and once again dazzles us with an incredible performance.
The Infiltrator is based on Robert Mazur’s book (read Merry Sheils review) which chronicled his life as an undercover agent on the front lines in our nation’s war against drugs. In 1986, Mazur had just finished a dangerous assignment and could have retired. Instead, he took on another challenge. Mazur figured out that chasing the cocaine was the wrong way to upend the drug lords. Following the money, he reasoned, would root out not only those funneling cocaine through Miami, but also the bankers that were helping the cartel launder and hide its fortunes.
John Leguizamo, Rubén Ochandiano, and Bryan Cranston
Cranston displays his versatility. As Robert Mazur, husband and dad, he plays board games and enjoys dinner with his family. As Bob Musella, shopping his money-laundering services to drug kingpins, he swaggers in snakeskin cowboy boots and flashy jackets, chauffeured around in a Rolls Royce. The two lives come crashing together in one jarring scene in a restaurant where Mazur and his wife are celebrating their wedding anniversary. Someone who knows him as Bob Musella approaches their table and Cranston deftly transforms from the affable Mazur into the violent Musella, smashing a waiter’s face into a chocolate cake. Evelyn Mazur (Juliet Aubrey), the long-suffering wife, is horrified watching her husband’s explosive behavior, something he has managed to hide from her and their children.
There are echoes of another drug saga throughout the film. The strip club where the drug lords entertain Mazur resembles Tony Soprano’s Bada Bing Club, and the soundtrack is reminiscent of that HBO hit. And like in the mafia’s world, there’s plenty of violence and bloodshed. The risks taken by an undercover agent are serious and Mazur several times barely escapes with his life. Directed with expertise by Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer), each scene ratchets up the tension.
Olympia Dukakis and Bryan Cranston
Cranston is surrounded by an excellent cast. John Leguizamo is terrific as the wild-card agent Emir Abreu who is attracted to undercover work because of the “rush” and whose hit-miss preparation often places Mazur’s life at risk. Diane Kruger, who garnered good reviews for her portrayal of a police detective in FX’s The Bridge, plays Kathy Ertz, an agent enlisted as Musella’s fiancé. (Their faux wedding brings together the drug world’s main players for an easy roundup by law enforcement.) Yul Vazquez is alternately humorous and creepy as the eccentric drug money manager, Javier Ospina. Benjamin Bratt manages to make Colombian heavyweight Roberto Alcaino seem no worse than a ruthless businessman. And Olympia Dukakis has two brief and very enjoyable appearances masquerading as Musella’s eccentric Aunt Vicky.
In the end, however, this is Cranston’s film and he makes the most of it. At one point he cautions his colleagues that one small mistake could bring the entire operation down and lead to their deaths. And as Musella, Cranston shows us that mixture of bravado and fear, carefully editing his behavior and reactions while still appearing completely natural and in the moment. He’s a marvel to watch.
Kruger’s Ertz captures the emotional side of undercover work when she breaks down, knowing that she and Mazur will bring down Alcaino and his wife, two people she has become close to, even likes. She’s reminded, however, that this same couple is part of a criminal cartel becoming wealthy as they ensure that the cocaine they supply will addict the next generation. Now that our nation battles a new epidemic against heroin, we hope that there are other heroes like Mazur working to bring these new drug lords to justice.
The Infiltrator opens nationwide July 13, 2016.
Photo credit: Liam Daniel / Broad Green Pictures