“Breaking Bad” was the turning point of Bryan Cranston’s career, the moment when he went from goofy “Malcolm in the Middle” sitcom dad to masculine antihero emblematic of the “Golden Age of TV.” It’s the midlife crisis of suburban sitcom dads who find out that they really like being bad. It’s a role that will most likely define Cranston for the rest of his career, and in his latest film, “The Infiltrator,” it’s impossible to not see his performance through the lens of Walter White.
“The Infiltrator” is the tale of two Bobs: Mazur and Musella. It’s a true story, based on the book by Robert Mazur, a U.S. customs special agent who went undercover in the 1980s to expose big banks working in collusion with Colombian drug cartels to launder money. Cranston plays both Bobs — Mazur is a modest Miami dad with a wife (Juliet Aubrey) and two kids, and Musella is a flashy mob-money launderer with a young, glamorous blonde fiancee (Diane Kruger) draped in fur and jewels.
The line between crime and justice is constantly blurred in “The Infiltrator,” and in the life of Bob, who forms deep bonds with the movers and shakers in this lavish cartel world, a business based on trust, loyalty and bloody justice. It’s “one last job” for Bob, whose real-life wife begins to wonder why he decided to take on this high-risk mission when he was eligible for retirement.
Even his partner, Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), questions his motivations. Emir himself is upfront about it – he loves the work, it’s his drug of choice. He slimes around in the dank, sweaty underground, while Bob enjoys the upper-class spoils of cartel life, nightclubs and mansions and private jets. Eventually, Mazur cops to the appeal – “I’m going to miss Bob Musella,” he admits, saying goodbye to his alter ego, a mob smoothie in a sharkskin suit, pressing palms and testing his luck with the most dangerous men in the world.
It’s Cranston’s performance and Leguizamo’s that propel the film, as well as a sleek, silvery Benjamin Bratt, as a cartel operator with whom Bob forms a deep friendship he ultimately must betray. But there are times when “The Infiltrator” feels like a cut-rate “Blow,” a degraded Xerox copy of every ‘80s Miami drug movie. An early montage of undercover operations is soundtracked to Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman,” which has only ever felt not like the too-obvious choice when it originally appeared in “Super Fly.”
Directed by Brad Furman, and shot by Joshua Reis, the film’s style is a bit overwrought: the image itself layered with grain and saturated color to evoke a vintage aesthetic, but which at times abruptly shifts in color palette, to a drastically desaturated look for example, with no discernible storytelling motivation. If the stylistic choices aren’t serving the story, the extreme experimentation is ultimately meaningless.
“The Infiltrator” rides on Cranston’s abilities to so ably and sensitively portray the average American man torn between his double life – the man who wants both lives. The story itself often seems outlandish, and if it weren’t based on a true one, would feel unrealistic and overly contrived. That unbelievable aspect is a large part of the appeal of “The Infiltrator,” which would otherwise seem like just another generic drug world fable.
Rated: R for strong violence, language throughout, some sexual content and drug material. Starring: Bryan Cranston, John Leguizamo, Benjamin Bratt. Director: Brad Furman. Running time: 127 minutes. Theater: Edwards 21, Edwards 14, Flicks, Majestic 18.