Like Brad Furman’s previous film “The Lincoln Lawyer,” “The Infiltrator” is a cannily structured piece of pulpy pop entertainment marked by a starry lead performance and some histrionic supporting turns. It doesn’t have much depth, but the surface keeps you engaged, as was definitely not the case with the director’s intervening “Runner Runner,” which was an equally pulpy but far less entertaining stumble.
Bryan Cranston stars as Robert Mazur, an FBI agent working the Miami anti-drug beat undercover in the mid-eighties. After busting low-level distributor Dominic (Joseph Gilgun) in an operation that nearly goes awry, he suggests to his superiors Bonni Tischler (Amy Ryan) and Mark Jackowski (Jason Isaacs) that they aim for higher-ups by going after the money rather than the drugs, and the squad acts on a tip provided by volatile agent Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) to use contacts he’s established with mid-level money-launderers in Pablo Escobar’s cartel to contrive a relationship with the leadership of the murderous group. Soon Mazur and Abreu have become partners and outfitted themselves with new identities borrowed from tombstones, while Mazur springs Dominic from jail to act as his general factotum and advisor.
Mazur now spends much of his time as Bob Musella, a high-flying money manager who promises Escobar’s Florida henchman that he can launder huge amounts of cartel cash in innovative ways that will hide the transactions from the feds while making it readily available to them. The initiation process is naturally dangerous, putting him in potentially fatal situations (a scene involving Santeria ritual that leaves another applicant dead is instructive), but ultimately he’s successful, using his glad-handing style to connect the cartel with the now-infamous Bank of Credit and Commerce International and its upper-echelon management team.
Eventually Bob’s cleverness earns him the confidence of Escobar’s chief Miami lieutenant, suave Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt); they become so close, in fact, that Musella is invited to spend time with Alcaino and his lovely wife Gloria (Elena Anaya) at their palatial penthouse apartment, along with Bob’s fake fiancée Kathy (Diane Kruger), actually another agent on her first undercover gig. The mission naturally places a strain on Mazur’s own domestic situation; his children (Lara Decaro and Niall Hayes) are kept as much in the dark as possible, but his wife Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) grows increasingly anxious, not only because of pretty Kathy’s involvement but because she witnesses her loving husband’s transformation into Musella during an anniversary dinner in a restaurant, where they are interrupted by one of his cartel associates (Simon Andreu) and he must quickly morph into his unpleasant role before his wife’s horrified eyes (introducing her as his secretary and mistreating a waiter to keep up the charade).
Furman plays such incidents of jeopardy—not only this one, the Santeria sequence and a meeting Musella has with Barry Seal (Michael Pare), a former confederate of Escobar’s who’s turned government informant, but another involving Abreu, in which he is nearly unmasked (and thus marked for death) by his unhappy snitch (Juan Cely)—to good effect. Perhaps the best of them, however, is a quick moment when Musella’s briefcase, which he uses to record conversations, snaps open to reveal the taping system—and the mechanism is glimpsed for an instant by the most suspicious of Escobar’s henchmen Javier Ospina (Yul Vazquez), a preening, lecherous fellow who favors pristine white suits and threatens to blow the entire operation. He doesn’t, however—for reasons that won’t be revealed here—and everything culminates at the false wedding of Musella and Kathy, to which all the main players have been invited.
Of course, the entire film can’t consist of these nerve-wracking moments, and it must be said that the more exposition-oriented stretches of “The Infiltrator” have a more humdrum quality, not unlike what one might encounter in a solid telefilm about an undercover cop. The picture is entertaining throughout, but it never plumbs the dramatic depths of a film like “Donnie Brasco,” instead remaining content with a lurid surface sheen and a generalized tone of menace and corruption.
The acting, too, is solid but conventionally flashy. Cranston, for example, is fine, but never achieves the sense of underlying conflict that Johnny Depp did in “Brasco.” Like all of Cranston’s screen work, it’s a big performance in which subtlety is sacrificed for theatrical effect. The same can be said of Leguizamo, a Furman favorite, whose turn is amusingly over-the-top in the fashion we’ve come to expect from him, and Vasquez, who pulls out all the stops. Their flamboyance stands out all the more in that they’re surrounded by supporting players who are mostly subdued—even Kruger makes relatively little impression. That sometimes works—Bratt, for example, plays the smooth card very effectively. But it means that when characters pop out more ostentatiously (Pare, for instance, or Gilgun and Olympia Dukakis as Mazur’s mob-connected aunt, both of whom might have stepped out of “The Sopranos”), it tends to throw things slightly off kilter.
Overall, though, Furman succeeds, certainly better than he did in “Runner Runner,” in getting his cast to fit into his vision. And the key members of the technical team—cinematographer Joshua Reis, who gives the widescreen images a garish look and production and costume designers Crispian Sallis and Dinah Collins, who revel in the period details—serve it as well. The editing team (David Rosenbloom, Luis Carballar and Jeff McEvoy) manage to avoid too many longueurs and give a kick to the action sequences, and Chris Hajian’s score doesn’t over-italicize what is already awfully bombastic visually.
In sum, “The Infiltrator” isn’t a game-changer any more than Mazur’s imposture was—Pablo Escobar may be gone, but the trade in which he excelled seems to be more bloodily active than ever. But like Furman’s “Lincoln Lawyer,” this is a solidly entertaining piece of pulp done up in flashy fashion.