Bob Mazur, in his best-selling memoir, sounds like any of us when we shift careers, writing that he wanted something that “kept my interest, that didn’t box me into the same boring routine.” The only difference is that Mazur didn’t break the box quitting an ad job to launch a craft distillery or a dog-portrait Etsy shop — he became a billion-dollar money launderer for U.S. Customs, facilitating one of the biggest drug busts in U.S. history with a manufactured identity, a fake fiancée and a lot of luck.
Brad Furman’s new crime thriller, The Infiltrator, starring Bryan Cranston as Mazur, attempts to re-create its subject’s stories from his memoir of the same name. And like Mazur, there’s a sense that Cranston, who hit a feverish fame with Breaking Bad, would like to break out of his Walter White box and get into another man’s skin. He tries with The Infiltrator. Unfortunately, as he performs the acting equivalent of triple backflips, Cranston isn’t given much of a safety net from the script or direction.
Written by Ellen Brown Furman, the director’s mother, the story backs itself into some cliché corners, with dialogue you can hear coming a mile down the road. Mazur’s partner, Kathy (Diane Kruger), playing his girlfriend undercover, hugs him after a huge bust, and says with plucky Girl Friday loyalty, “Go home to your wife, Bob.” But the missus, Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey), has kicked him out because he chose the job over her. Maybe someone would have taken a look at both Kathy's and Evelyn’s characters and asked some hard questions if Inside Amy Schumer’s brilliant sketch about Hollywood’s only female roles being wives on telephones had aired before the production of this film.
On the male side, there are more clichés. Cranston has to say, “Take ’em away, boys,” and the cops just dumbly hold their prisoners, waiting around so a manufactured moment between Mazur and his dupes can insincerely play itself out. But Cranston’s delivery of such cookie-cutter lines is at least credible and forlorn. He really needs his boys to take ’em away!
Cranston’s Mazur also has to tell his superiors that his loose-cannon new partner Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) is too crazy to work with, pushing the film into serious buddy-cop territory. That’s actually pleasing, though, and gives a glimpse of what might happen if Mazur had been paired with any one character long enough for a connection to develop. Instead, director Furman’s jumpy montage style and editing suggest a less-developed Soderbergh caper. As Mazur gets deeper into the cartel, making friends with higher-ups like Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), our infiltrator becomes less knowable, swallowed by the complex narrative and revolving cast of characters. And since we’re given little information about the extent of Mazur’s undercover work up until this particular bust, it’s impossible to know how out-of-the-ordinary any of these dangerous scenarios are.
Are there scenes that work? Yes. When Mazur’s taken to a nondescript hut to be judged for his truthfulness by a voodoo priest and another man who’s deemed to be lying about his identity is shot right next to him, Cranston channels the determined fear of a horror-movie Final Girl. Every scene he has with pansexual ball-grabber mob boss Javier Ospina (Yul Vazquez) is a contest of acting one-upmanship. And Leguizamo and Cranston need a second chance to play off one another’s loose, reactive physicality, because there’s a spark there. But inside this particular box, the flame’s sealed off from its oxygen and burns out pretty quickly.