Bryan Cranston is winning America’s hearts and minds one drug at a time — first as a self-made meth kingpin in “Breaking Bad,” now as a U.S. Customs agent going after a Colombian cocaine cartel in “The Infiltrator,” a sturdy crime drama based on Robert Mazur’s “Miami Vice”-era memoir.
Cranston plays Mazur, a veteran undercover agent in 1985 Tampa who gets paired with a somewhat reckless agent, Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), who suggests that instead of following the drugs to bring down the cartel, they follow the money. (Is “follow the money” not the obvious strategy for everything? I thought it was.) So Bob Mazur becomes Bob Musella, a Mafia-connected businessman who can launder money for — and thus learn the inner workings of — Pablo Escobar’s coke empire.
He’s good at it. One of the pleasures here is how natural an actor Bob is, how thoroughly he adopts a character and adapts to changing situations. There’s a fantastic scene where he’s out to dinner with his wife, Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey), who knows his line of work and worries about him. When they run into one of the drug bosses Bob works with, he has to switch from Mazur to Musella in a heartbeat and behave the way a Mob-affiliated money-launderer would behave. It’s horrifying and thrilling.
Bob is focused and very competent, but not to the extent that his work is easy for him. He’s no James Bond. Staying in character as Musella, developing friendships with high-living drug lords (including one played by Benjamin Bratt), having a fellow Customs agent (Diane Kruger) play his fiancee — all while gathering intel and recording conversations — is exhausting. He is constantly aware that he’s “one wrong word, one slip” from being exposed. He does his job well, but he’s sweaty the whole time. It’s immensely satisfying (and suspenseful) to see him roll with the punches, improvising like a regular Walter White to maintain his cover.
The story requires a lot of characters on both sides of the law, and while many of them are colorful and unpredictable (like the lecherous gay drug lord played by Yul Vazquez), it almost can’t help getting bogged down in the details. That’s why director Brad Furman (“The Lincoln Lawyer”) is smart to focus on Bob — on Cranston, really — whose skill and decency keep us invested even when the story gets murky. Which drug will Cranston work with next? I can’t wait to find out!
B (2 hrs., 7 min.; )