The suspense of undercover stories lies in watching people squirm around in someone else's shoes. We love the idea of going undercover for the same reason we go to the movies — to get a glimpse of lives more thrilling than our own.
In the late '80s, U.S. Customs agent Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) passed on the chance to retire out of the desire to peek into a dangerous, exotic world and make his mark on it. Mazur went undercover as a money launderer in an effort to stop drug lord Pablo Escobar's Colombian cartel, which was flooding America with cocaine.
Mazur's transformation is the most interesting aspect of the story. Oddly enough, the film becomes less compelling when he goes back to his kind self and starts sympathizing with one of the dealers (Benjamin Bratt, in fine form) and his family. They become quite close, especially when Mazur introduces them to his fiancé (another undercover agent assigned to play his bride-to-be). Kathy (Diane Kruger) makes Mazur see the good buried in the midst of this world enveloped in evil. The "couple" has difficulty separating the job from their emotional involvement with these criminals they are trying to capture. Bratt and Cranston share electric chemistry as two best friends on opposite sides of the law. The development of their friendship and its ultimate demise is one of the darkest, most poignant chapters in the film.
As a good guy, Mazur/Cranston largely lies flat on the screen. But as a money monster, he comes alive. Cranston casts the same sinister spell that hooked millions of viewers on Breaking Bad. Like Walter White, Mazur slips into the role of a ruthless businessman with menacing ease — as if he were a gangster in another life. As Mazur suggests at one point, there's a little bit of truth behind every lie he tells, leading us to believe that his alter ego isn't a total invention; it's simply another side of him that was lying dormant, just waiting to wake up. When Cranston lets loose, you can't take your eyes off him. This is by far his best big-screen performance yet.
The idea of a good-hearted guy doing evil deeds is simply more intriguing and surprising than watching one feel sorry for the bad guys he's trying to catch. But director Brad Furman seems compelled to filter the film through a cookie-cutter formula. Like Donnie Brasco and The Informant!, The Infiltrator moves toward a predictable character arc, showing its hero struggling to maintain his cover as his conscience kicks in. But unlike the heroes of those films, Mazur is quite talented at playing dirty. However, the film shies away from the powerful suggestion that the undercover work allowed him to unleash his anger, which he suppressed around his family.
In the interest of keeping a mainstream appeal, Furman tries not to linger too long on Mazur's embrace of his dark side. Although it pays homage to gritty crime films like GoodFellas and Scarface, The Infiltrator ultimately emerges as heartfelt popcorn fare. It feels like the film plays a little too safe, quickly washing blood off its hands in favor of more "wholesome" entertainment. Much like Mazur himself, it has a nagging conscience, refusing to walk on the wild side of life too long.
The Infiltrator is worth seeing for Cranston alone. He delivers a big, juicy, Oscar-worthy performance — one that belongs in a better film. This is far from a bad movie, but it doesn't have the same dark magic as many others in the undercover/informant genre. It's the kind of story that should leave you with goosebumps and chills running up your spine, but it sends you out into the night with just a dim smile of satisfaction. The only part that will haunt you is Cranston's performance, which will lurk for days in the dark corners of your mind.