The Infiltrator
Directed by: Brad Furman 
Starring: Bryan Cranston, John Leguizamo, Amy Ryan 
Rated R for strong violence, language throughout, some sexual content and drug material
2 hrs., 7 min.

Bryan Cranston, as any fan of Breaking Bad will tell you, has taken his place among America’s finest actors. Like Tom Hanks, he’s made an effortless vault from comedic buffoonery to taut, dramatic roles. He brings every nuance of his range to The Infiltrator.

Based on the memoir by former U.S. Customs Service Special Agent Robert Mazur, The Infiltrator reveals the guts of the undercover operation that wounded Pablo Escobar’s powerful Medellín drug cartel 30 years ago, in pastel-festooned, Miami Vice-era South Florida of the 1980s. Director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) and his scriptwriter mother, Ellen Brown Furman, recreate the “Just Say No” decade with brio — from neon colors to phone booths and the now-dated tech items. Ironically, that same-said anti-drug public relations slogan flew in the face of immense drug demand, which met with more than ample supply. The plot of the film is that these agents make the crucial decision to damage the Colombian suppliers by following not the drugs, but the money. 

At the film’s outset, we get a clue as to what lengths these agents go to as they plan out their perilous work: Cranston’s Mazur, along with partner Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), find their alternate identities prowling through a graveyard and gleaning information from headstones. (Leguizamo is another comic performer who blows the roof off the dump as a dramatic actor.) Mazur adopts the name Bob Musella to pose as a money-laundering big shot, with all the accoutrements of such an oily character: slicked-back hair à la Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko, a push-broom moustache, double-breasted suits and a Rolls Royce. Cranston, as Mazur, gradually inhabits that part of Musella, because this film, with its subject matter so reminiscent of Traffic or Scarface, yet adapted from reality like American Hustle or possibly Argo, is about acting — without cameras, and with lives at stake.

Mazur/Musella, joined by undercover fiancée Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), worms his way through a labyrinth of drug baddies, each more menacing than the other, particularly Javier Ospina (Yul Vazquez), clad all in white, androgynous and creepy. Benjamin Bratt, a little grayer and more wrinkled than in his Law & Order days, is Roberto Alcaino, close associate of Escobar, and as high up on the ladder to the Kingpin’s throne as Mazur/Musella may be able to get. Bratt is all coolness and suavity, concealing the deadly cunning that comes with his trade. 

Also targeted by Mazur, Abreu, Ertz and their Customs Service boss (played by a hard-shelled Amy Ryan) are the suits from the corrupt Bank of Credit and Commerce International, BCCI — an acronym familiar to anyone old enough to have followed politics in the Reagan era. All get taken into the scam, while the feds sweat out nail-biting hurdles as they set their trap.

That Mazur does not lose his essence playing Musella is miraculous. He’s a loyal family man with a wife and kids, and Cranston embodies his conflicts with fascinating skill. There is much to resist while getting the goods on these bloodthirsty bad guys, including the feigned relationship with Ertz. The sexual tension there is as palpable as the terrifyingly close calls. 

The true-to-life ultimate conclusion is emotionally conflicting. On one hand, there’s a sense of relief; on the other, a deep feeling of empathy. The tremendous toll of undercover work puts agents on a precipice, in constant peril of losing their lives or their humanity or both. Cranston and all the cast, feds and drug lords alike, brilliantly bring this forth. The pain and cost of the operation drifts through the last act like smoke, and settles as a layer of ash.

I hope that by awards season, Bryan Cranston will not be forgotten for his work in The Infiltrator. Rows of Emmys and Tonys already adorn his shelves. This shifting performance, equal parts chilling, funny, dazed and tense, puts him in line for strong consideration in what is the drama of the summer.