Ever since signing off as Walter White, Bryan Cranston has had an eclectic post-Breaking Bad career. So far, he’s earned an Oscar nom for his role as the blacklisted screenwriter in Trumbo, he’s lent his voice to a panda patriarch in Kung Fu Panda 3, and he’s gone presidential as Lyndon B. Johnson in HBO’s All the Way. Soon, he’ll face off against James Franco in the raunchy Christmas comedy Why Him? and power up as Zordon in the upcoming Power Rangers movie.
But with Brad Furman’s crime thriller The Infiltrator, Cranston once again plays a devoted family man embroiled in the drug trade, struggling with issues of morality, violence, and loyalty. This time, however, he’s working for the feds, going undercover as a flamboyantly ruthless money launderer in an attempt to take down Pablo Escobar and his entire cartel system. The result is a solid (if occasionally uneven) ‘80s drug thriller, elevated by a multilayered and brilliant performance from Cranston.
The Infiltrator chronicles the saga of real-life federal agent Robert Mazur (Cranston), a Tampa-based fed trying to take down the rampant South Floridian drug trade of the mid-‘80s. After years of tracking the business, the mild-mannered Mazur decides the best course of action is to follow the money instead, adopting the name Bob Musella and the persona of a flashy money launderer with ties to the New York mafia. With the help of his fellow undercover agent Emir Abreau (a charming John Leguizamo), he slowly works his way up through the ranks of Escobar’s cartel, gathering evidence to not only put away the cartel leaders but the corrupt international bankers they partnered with.
It’s always fun to watch actors playing actors (or actors playing undercover cops who are acting), and Cranston does so effortlessly, transitioning back and forth between Mazur and Musella. Nowhere is this more clear than in a scene where Mazur is celebrating his anniversary at dinner with his actual wife, only to be spotted by one of his drug associates. Desperate to not only protect his wife but avoid blowing his cover, he immediately transforms into Musella, mercilessly bullying a waiter and smashing his face into a cake. It’s disconcerting to watch Mazur flip so easily (and believably) between meek husband and sociopathic money launderer, and Cranston’s performance leaves both his wife and the audience wondering how the supposedly squeaky-clean Mazur got so good at being bad.
Unfortunately, things tend to drag whenever Cranston’s off screen. The script reduces Mazur’s wife (Juliet Aubrey) to a collection of boring tropes, whose only role is to nag her husband about when he’s going to retire. Diane Kruger gets to do more as a newbie undercover agent posing as Musella’s fake fiancé, but this is Cranston’s show, through and through. At its worst, the movie gets a bit heavy-handed as it tries to hammer home its themes of moral relativity and loyalty.
Still, Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) gives the whole picture a delightfully retro ‘80s vibe, capturing the seediness of South Florida and ratcheting up the tension: No matter how confident Mazur may appear while undercover, one small misstep could not only blow his cover but lead to a horrifyingly grisly death. The Infiltrator may not be as innovative as Breaking Bad, but it sure is fun to watch Cranston at his best again, masterfully walking the tightrope between good and bad. B+