In the riveting new real-life drama, The Infiltrator from director Brad Furman, Bryan Cranston is just right as U.S. Customs special agent Robert Mazur. He’s the principle player in an operation that helped bust the money-laundering organization of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, and it’s Mazur’s autobiography upon which the film is based.
It’s 1985. While the Mazur family plays in the living room, an ad on TV tells the nation’s youngsters to just say no to drugs. It isn’t working. Cocaine continues to flood the country from neighbors in the south; the majority smuggled through customs in Florida. From time to time, while there might be small drug-busting victories for custom officers, it isn’t nearly enough. Chasing the drugs doesn’t appear to be the answer. “What if we chased the money?” Mazur proposes. It’s an idea that meets the approval of his tough boss, Bonni Tischler (Amy Ryan, whose no-nonsense toughness is fast becoming scarier with every new performance).
Taking his undercover identity from a gravestone where the birth dates seem appropriate, Mazur becomes Bob Musella, a somewhat shady businessman who knows a thing or two about money-laundering. Infiltrating Colombia’s drug cartels, Mazur successfully presents his Musella as someone who can take the cartel’s dirty money and ‘clean’ it for them by moving it around in large sums with the assistance of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) then hiding it into seemingly legitimate companies.
“Promise me this is the last one,” Mazur’s wife, Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey), asks of her husband. “I Promise,” he replies as he readies his new identity. He could have retired. He could have remained safely in the background, but there’s a drive that keeps Mazur doing what he does. It might be his undercover associate Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) who declares that he loves doing what he does – going undercover and mixing in dangerous circles is Abreu’s drug of choice – but it’s clear that Mazur feels the same adrenaline rush, and it’s clearly addictive.
The power of The Infiltrator is how effectively it pulls you in from the beginning. Screenwriter Ellen Brown Furman does a remarkable job adapting a complicated story and streamlining it to a level that retains its intelligence without compromising its complexities; despite the large amount of characters and the never-ending globe-trotting, the film is never difficult to follow.
Mazur’s home life and his relationship with his wife becomes just as interesting as his undercover work, especially when the two world’s collide. While posing as Musella at a nightclub, ever faithful to his wife, the agent can’t quite go through with having sex with a lap-dancer – she’s a paid gift from the cartel contacts – and he invents a story about having a fiancée. This causes a dilemma for the customs agent. Another agent (Diane Kruger) has to be recruited in order to maintain Mazur’s story. She becomes his fiancée, and even though this is her first undercover operation, rather than remaining simply decoration by looking attractive and linking her arm to Musella’s at parties, she develops into a surprising asset.
Particularly effective is a scene where Mazur takes his wife to a restaurant for an anniversary dinner. It’s here where Evelyn gets an all too real glimpse of the kind of world her husband rarely talks about. A cartel member recognizes Mazur and greets him at his table. Mazur changes immediately into his undercover identity, changes his style of speech and action in front of his distraught wife, and becomes violent with the restaurant waiter when the employee brings an anniversary cake to the table. Mazur, as Musella, insists he asked for a birthday cake. In keeping with the kind of behavior associated with those he’s dealing with, the agent thrusts the innocent waiter’s face into the cake. Evelyn is appalled at her husband’s behavior but is quick to realize it’s part of his job, especially when she’s introduced as his secretary. “You could have retired,” she will later remind him.
The casting is good throughout with performances that always convince, even in small roles such as Olympia Dukakis as Mazur’s conniving Aunt Vicky and Jason Issacs as government agent Mark Jackowski. Plus, even though he’s unseen for the first half of the film, once Benjamin Bratt as Roberto Alcaino is introduced, an immediate sense of danger is established. Alcaino answers directly to Pablo Escobar. The character never threatens Musella and always makes a point of treating the agent and his fiancée with respect as they discuss money over drinks, but because of his position of authority with the cartel and his direct link to Escobar, you can never relax in his presence. Without seemingly trying, Bratt exudes a constant sense of endangerment. The fact that you might even like him makes the character all the more effective. Like the film itself, you can’t take your eyes away.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 127 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)