The cinema landscape is loaded with tales of macho undercover agents blasting their way through bad guys while breaking eight of the Ten Commandments in the process. The world Hollywood loves to paint is one of a moral compass that spins like a top.
There is another, more cerebral, approach.
“The Infiltrator” director Brad Furman uses the script based on the book by Robert Mazur to create the story of an undercover agent who lives in a tense, dramatic world while still allowing him to maintain his humanity. He’s a good man living in an evil world.
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It’s not an easy task as the film looks at the true story of a U.S. Customs undercover agent who in 1985 maneuvers his way into the Colombian cartel of drug lord Pablo Escobar. One wrong word and the agent’s life would be in mortal danger.
There is never a calm moment in “The Infiltrator” – but this is more about how an undercover operative must go deep into the minds of his targets. This means earning trust, being able to talk your way out of anything and always keeping right in sight.
This comes to life through another amazing performance by Bryan Cranston. Since showing his comedic skills on “Malcolm in the Middle,” Cranston has racked up a hit list of dramatic roles that few actors can match.
As Mazur in the movie, Cranston comes across smart enough to help the cartel but not so much as to be a threat. He also manages to play his undercover role as enough of a snake oil salesman to seem like he should be part of this world.
The role falls somewhere between the cold and calculating Walter White that Cranston played on “Breaking Bad” and the politically oriented Lyndon Johnson he portrayed in “All the Way.” Cranston’s work is worth keeping in mind when the next Oscar season rolls around.
Where “The Infiltrator” really sets itself apart is that instead of letting the story turn into a whirlpool of violence, Furman keeps the focus on the human elements. He shows that despite being involved in a business that prides itself on death and destruction, the people running the organization are solid family men.
The director never glamorizes what they do but does show how Cranston’s character begins to empathize with them. That’s particularly true with the bond formed by Mazur and Robert Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), one of the top men in the cartel.
Diane Kruger is the perfect glue for the men as she plays an undercover agent who is supposed to be the fiancée of Mazur’s undercover character, money-laundering businessman Bob Musella.
The biggest problem with “The Infiltrator” is that there are so many characters the story often gets muddled. When that happens, it’s difficult to know who the players are. Once untangled, the story settles back into an original look at a familiar genre.
The film shows that tales of undercover agents don’t have to resort to firepower to blow the audience away. Often the most deadly weapons are the brain and the heart.