The Infiltrator, an undercover thriller concerning the infiltration of Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel in 1986 via a prop-up bank and a fake engagement, is all surface sheen. It’s assembled a great cast, sure, but it doesn’t plumb the depths of anyone’s relationship, nor the main agents’ dogged work. Instead Brad Furman’s (The Lincoln Lawyer) film is a series of scenes of ease: the ease of convincing cartel heavyweights, the ease of resisting temptation when marriage lines become blurred and the ease of creating friendships with top dogs via one or two visits. And doing easy lifting does not help the emotional gut punch that the film thinks it’s set you up for.
Bryan Cranston stars as Bob Mazur, a successful undercover DEA agent in one of the main drug trafficking ports from South America, Tampa, who’s been offered a retirement track after another bust of the pushers at the bottom of the drug food chain. Mazur turns down the retirement track when he brazenly decides his final job should be attempting to infiltrate the top rung of the biggest and most elaborate drug cartel that America had ever seen: Pablo Escobar’s. His new undercover identity is an American money launderer, but his entry point comes from an undercover partner who’s addicted to acting the part of a cartel swingin’ dick, Emir (John Leguizamo). When Bob refuses oral sex from a stripper on his first meeting with someone from Escobar’s cartel, he makes up a fiancé on the spot, and thus his double life now includes a double agent fiancé, Kathy (Diane Kruger)—much to the dismay of Bob’s real life wife (Juliet Aubrey).
There is a lot of potential conflict in this set up: the conflict of differing methods between partners who’ve infiltrated the drug trade in culturally divergent ways, the potential attraction of playing a fake husband and wife-to-be in threatening situations that allow for an awe at how each person handles their role, and of course, the obvious difficulty of gaining the trust of individuals whose boss has ordered horrific tortures and murders of those who’ve crossed him. But Furman chooses not to investigate any of these conflicts fully. Instead, he simply juxtaposes scenes of Mazur leaving a PTA meeting to go to a drug sting, films an execution without pretext or postscript, and shows that impressing Escobar’s main distributor, Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), is as easy as flanking Alcaino with Bob’s aunt (Olympia Dukakis) and Kathy’s billowing fur coat—to remind Roberto of his own feisty aunt and that Kathy likes to shop just as much as Alcaino’s wife, Gloria (The Skin I Live In’s Elena Anaya).
Furman’s biggest narrative commitment is to a few friendly meetings between the Alcainos and the fake future “Musellas”. But a few discussions on loyalty or the importance of friends and family plus the acknowledgement that ladies love to shop(!), and the appearance of a teenage daughter, don’t build the type of strong bond that Bob and Kathy’s sudden reactions to situations that involve their potential entanglement with the Alcainos would lead you to believe.
By putting all of his emotional eggs in the Alcaino-Musella basket, Furman and screenwriter Ellen Brown Furman, short-change us the more emotional nuances of Mazur’s double life. His real marriage has the emotional weight of a staged family interaction that features on the cover of a 1980s board game. There are major threats to his home life and real identity but they are dispatched as quickly as they’re introduced. In fact, there’s a shocking lack of tension for a film that features cartels, gangsters, double identities, and a constant rock ‘n roll soundtrack that’s aping Martin Scorsese’s signature gangster score substitution move. The most threatening situations, cinematically, don’t feature Mazur, but instead feature Emir; which is situationally fine because Leguizamo is great in his role, but—once the Alcainos are introduced—his partnership story goes to the backburner and he’s relegated to a sidekick punch-line deliverer (“I gotta get me a fiancé!” he says as he checks out Kathy).
The biggest selling point for The Infiltrator is Cranston, though, as he walks the other side of the Breaking Bad line and breaks good while everyone else breaks bad around him. And Cranston is more than capable in the role, but he’s not allowed the space to dive deep into the emotional pushes and pulls that his character would naturally be feeling. The one time we see him have to feign bad, an anniversary dinner with his real wife, it actually seems out of character for his Bob Musella character (who’s never shown in any situation as a volcanic or threatening character), and plays more like a Walter White cameo. It might give the people the Cranston they want, but it doesn’t actually gel with his character’s identity—even the fake one.
With its empty attempts at defining family and friendships, The Infiltrator looks like a handsome scrapbook—after the adhesive has worn off and the pictures are peeling back. It doesn’t seem apparent that anyone involved has any affixed idea to what any of these characters are thinking or feeling in almost every situation. Things just happen. With ease.
The Infiltrator is in theaters today, July 13.