It’s telling that the word “traitor” sounds like it’s part of the title “The Infiltrator.”
Because what makes this real-life undercover drama so engrossing is that not only are we worried a federal agent’s cover might be blown, but we are just as concerned about his betrayal of the ruthless drug lords and corrupt bankers he has befriended.
That “in too deep” dynamic has played out effectively in dozens of movies, most notably the Oscar-nominated “Donnie Brasco” and “The Departed.” But in this thriller based on Robert Mazur’s memoir, “The Infiltrator: My Secret Life Inside the Dirty Banks Behind Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel,” the story builds to a fresh, memorable endgame.
We meet Mazur (“Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston) in 1985 as the Tampa agent busts low-level runners in Escobar’s cartel. Yet this campaign hasn’t dented the 15 tons of cocaine a week they continue to smuggle into the States.
So he decides to pursue a different strategy: “Chase the money, not the drugs.”
He invents the new identity of Bob Musella, a mobbed-up “legitimate businessman” who promises to connect the cartel with highfalutin international bankers. The methodical, folksy veteran also partners with a chatty, streetwise agent (John Leguizamo) who favors improvising his way out of situations. Not exactly a perfect stylistic match.
Complicating issues is that Mazur has a wife and kids while trying to maintain a faux party-animal lifestyle, complete with the gold coca leaf ring that has taken the place of his wedding band. When the cartel offers Mazur a hooker, he lies that he just got engaged — and then must create a fake fiancée. Enter Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), a rookie agent willing to dive into the role despite the personal risk.
Their vulnerability escalates with each new layer of access to the Medellín’s inner circle. But, personally, they also grow closer to these criminals, particularly Escobar’s top lieutenant, Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), and wife Gloria (Elena Anaya), who soon become their best “friends.”
The real Mazur’s operation led to one of the largest money-laundering prosecutions in U.S. history. “The Infiltrator” appears less drawn to the headlines than to the relationships of those involved.
Cranston is coming off his Academy Award-nominated portrayal in “Trumbo,” which tried the opposite tactic with lesser results. The actor seemed to be doing an impression in that period biopic, but here he invests more emotionally and physically, inhabiting a complicated chameleon who must constantly shift from being in character to out of character.
It’s Cranston’s finest film performance.
Director Brad Furman (“The Lincoln Lawyer”), working from a screenplay written by his mother, Ellen Brown Furman, doesn’t waste time with elaborate gun battles or chase scenes; he wisely lingers on the small interactions. Meanwhile, Cranston and the supporting cast ground the material, even as they wander the same familiar territory — surveillance footage of hotel rooms, sleazy strip clubs, exotic high rises — found in other undercover crime flicks.
The film’s atmosphere isn’t as convincing. This is a decidedly 2016 view of what 1985 must have been like. Young women sport neck tattoos (never), and people dress in neutral colors (nope) and tight-fitting outfits (certainly not). Early ’70s soul tunes play more frequently than the glossy, overproduced hits of the era — no Phil Collins or Tears for Fears to be found.
Historically, it’s all wrong. But cinematically it somehow works. Guess the baggy, colorful “Miami Vice” vibe might come across as too tacky for modern audiences.
As the movie progresses toward a staged wedding between Mazur and Ertz, the action turns almost hallucinogenic —and undeniably hilarious. The Who’s “Eminence Front” (an ’80s release, thankfully) plays on the soundtrack, with the refrain “It’s a put on” reinforcing what’s onscreen.
This is the moment where the “put on” becomes indistinguishable from reality for our undercover infiltrator.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated R for strong violence, language throughout, some sexual content and drug material
Opens at 7 p.m. Tuesday