Bryan Cranston’s an actor’s actor. Channel-surfing, I once watched a few minutes of him playing the dad on TV’s “Malcolm in the Middle” and thought, “That’s exceptional clowning.”
The best actors have great comedic as well as dramatic talent. Laurence Olivier, the greatest modern stage actor, said he’d like his epitaph to read: “He Was Funny.” Bryan Cranston has no problem whatsoever playing the fool.
Moving up the Hollywood A-list food chain, Cranston’s Emmy-winning character from “Breaking Bad,” Walter White (mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher turned increasingly scary virtuoso crystal meth cook) was a culture-altering heavyweight.
Now, after recently playing president LBJ, here’s Cranston again in Walter White mode, as real-life Bob Mazur, former IRS accountant turned undercover Customs officer, in (how can it top “Breaking-Bad”?) “The Infiltrator.” The answer is, it can’t top “Breaking Bad.” It’s a decent Netflix-er, though.
‘Just Say No!’
Mazur’s memoir tells the tale of the cocaine river that flowed from Colombia to Florida in the 1980s. It’s cliché by now to put a Curtis Mayfield song (especially “Pusherman”) in a drug movie, but that’s in the soundtrack behind Mazur’s attempted wrangling of Floridian cocaine dealers: a time of (speaking of songs) “Lawyers, Guns and Money.”
In ’86, Mazur figured out that, in the same way Nancy Reagan’s supremely ridiculous message of “Just Say No” was the utterly wrong-headed message for American drug addicts, American law enforcement was focusing on the wrong drug-war target. Simply seizing easily replaceable drug shipments was like trying to bucket out a lake with a spoon—there’s always going to be more.
It’s the Money, Stupid
So Mazur devised a long con, a sophisticated sting operation based on his real-life undercover talent. He became businessman Bob Musella, a snazzy-suit-wearing, swimming-with-sharks, masterful, moustaschioed, multimillions middleman money-launderer, who hid dirty drug-cartel dollars in a byzantine network of legit investments.
By dealing in huge sums of cash with bankers and governments “above board,” these “upscale” clients pretended not to notice the washing machine rinse-cycle sounds going on underneath the table. Nor did they notice the faint whirring noise of Musella’s James Bond-like briefcase, hiding a state-of-the-art tape recorder.
Undercover spy and cop work are adrenaline-junkie professions of walking-the-edge craziness. One must have the right temperament—the 360-degree situational awareness, the bloodhound nose for danger, and the bomb-disposal technician’s ability to keep a cool head while looking at a ticking bomb—to do this job.
If you forget you’re under cover for a split second and drop your guard/character, around hyperaware drug-cartel predators, it’s immediately curtains on your performance—and your life.
So who’s Bob Musella after? The most infamous and deadliest of the drug super-kingpins, as related in Mazur’s memoir, “The Infiltrator: My Secret Life Inside the Dirty Banks Behind Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel” (Little, Brown & Co., 2009).
Closing the Gap
To get close to Escobar, Mazur gets an “Odd Couple” partner, fellow agent and jovial sleazebag Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo). Mazur’s an upright family man, the Felix Unger to Abreu’s practical-joking loose cannon Oscar Madison. Leguizamo’s never been better in a serious role.
The next step is snuggling up to Escobar’s top cocaine transporter, Roberto Alcaino (a gravitas-radiating Benjamin Bratt). However, when one of Escobar’s flunkies offers Mazur the pleasure of a “lady of the night,” the high-morals family man declines, improvising himself a faux fiancée.
This drug-culture faux pas necessitates that someone jump in and actually play said fiancée—Mazur’s next partner, rookie federal agent Kathy Ertz (German actress Diane Kruger). These two do a virtual limbo dance under the highly sensitive trust radar of Alcaino and his spitfire wife, Gloria (Elena Anaya).
The finale (which gives new meaning to putting all of one’s eggs in one basket) is reminiscent of the 1970s Robert Redford/Paul Newman caper, “The Sting,” with Cranston’s character still in costume, taking in the chaos and fruits of his labor, post-sting.
Why ‘Infiltrator’ Can’t Touch ‘Breaking Bad’
In “Breaking Bad,” Cranston established his everyman-with-a-deadly-ruthless-inner-freaky-monster persona. It could be argued that “Malcolm in the Middle” set the stage even before that—Cranston’s inherently patriarchal.
To make a long story short, well—that’s exactly what “The Infiltrator” is to “Breaking Bad.” It’s the shorter, film version of a related character arc—mild-mannered family man letting his inner Wildman out of the cage to take down drug dealers, substituting meth for coke, with the latter version generating a slight whiff of been-there-done-that. Either because Cranston’s perhaps (understandably) a little weary of it, or because we are (a bit).
Drug movies, like culinary movies, are a fairly formulaic genre: You’ve got your perennial strip-club scenes, your powder lines on mirrors, your being overcome by a desire to shower by just looking at some of the low-life characters, your threats of “The Godfather,” dead-horse-head-in-bed variety, and your various forms of termination. “The Infiltrator” has it all, but you can’t beat the lye-filled-bathtub-eating-through-the-ceiling corrosiveness of “Breaking Bad.”
That’s a good thing. You don’t want to beat that.
Speaking of nightmares and the desire to shower, the most outstanding example in this lineup is the all-white-clad, dark-sunglassed money launderer and sexual predator, Javier Ospina—compliments of actor Yul Vazquez.
The scenes between Cranston’s morally upright agent Mazur and Bratt’s sophisticated, warm, deeply loyal Roberto Alcaino, while also drug movie clichés (since they set up primary sources of tension and conflict), also offer a sense of hope, of seeing a tiny flicker of human goodness in the immense, yawning void of human badness.
While “The Infiltrator” offers no drug war solutions (not that it needs to), it does shine a spotlight on the CIA’s covert footprints in and around the Colombian drug world, as well as on cocaine’s role in funding wars.
Ultimately, “The Infiltrator” offers America another chance to look inside itself and recognize that no matter how high a wall you build between America and the countries that supply us with drugs, it’s supply and demand, and until we stop demanding, they’ll continue supplying.
Director: Brad Furman
Cast: Bryan Cranston, John Leguizamo, Diane Kruger, Benjamin Bratt, Amy Ryan, Olympia Dukakis, Yul Vazquez
Running Time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Release Date: July 13
Rated 3 stars out of 5