STREAMLINED: The infiltrator is based on real-life Robert Mazurs memoir about his time working for the U.S. government.

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THE INFILTRATOR. Directed by Brad Furman, with Bryan Cranston, Diane Kruger, John Leguizamo, Benjamin Bratt, Yul Vazquez, Juliet Aubrey, Elena Anaya, Amy Ryan, Joseph Gilgun, Olympia Dukakis, Saïd Taghmaoui, Art Malik, Rubén Ochandiano, Simón Andreu, Jason Isaacs, Michael Paré and Nabil Massad.

REVIEW: Sheri Linden

ROBERT Mazur, aka Bob Musella, is a man living in two worlds: quiet wife-and-kids suburbia and the take-no-prisoners opulence and bloodshed of the international drug trade. That he’s played by Bryan Cranston might be dismissed as post-Breaking Bad typecasting. But it’s also smart casting; as a US Customs agent leading an undercover sting of his own devising, Cranston turns every moment of duplicity, which is to say nearly every scene of The Infiltrator, into an emotionally textured high-wire act.

In a movie that’s ultimately about the performance aspect of spycraft and its psychological toll, his reactions and feints make for compelling viewing. They don’t, however, keep the fact-based intrigue from lapsing into boilerplate crime drama, as it frequently does amid the persuasively unsettling jolts, defusing rather than igniting the story’s core conflict.

The film which reteams the actor with Lincoln Lawyer director Brad Furman, tracks a former accountant’s knife-edge gambit to take down the Medellin Cartel. Furman, his cast and his behind-the-camera collaborators – beginning with screenwriter Ellen Brown Furman, half of a rare mother-and-son creative partnership – bring mid-’80s materialist excess and moral ambivalence into lurid focus. That the film finally proves less than the sum of its parts is unlikely to dissuade Cranston’s fans.

At its strongest, Brown Furman’s adaptation of Mazur’s memoir wryly observes the ease with which Colombian drug lords and their stateside representatives secure legit banking channels for their ever-expanding profit. At its weakest, it hard-sells its themes and overdoes the tough-talking dialogue in ways that are so awkwardly self-conscious they stop the action cold.

That action consists chiefly of following the dirty money of Pablo Escobar’s cartel, rather than taking the more conventional tack of tracing the cocaine flowing into Florida. It’s a scheme conceived of by Tampa-based federal agent Mazur, who’s promptly paired against his will with Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), an agent who embraces danger as his “drug of choice”.

Their yin-yang dichotomy couldn’t be spelled out more clearly, but it becomes increasingly evident that while their styles may differ, Mazur thrills to the chase no less than Abreu – to the chagrin of his understandably anxious wife. Juliet Aubrey is effectively understated in the underwritten role of Evelyn Mazur, whose worries take on new dimensions after the young and striking Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), an agent on her first undercover assignment, is tasked with playing her husband’s fiancée.

In addition to his glamorous girlfriend, Mazur’s high-flying money launderer “Musella” is outfitted with off-the-charts real estate, a Rolls-Royce and bespoke suits. While Abreu works the streets, Mazur/Musella works his way up the cartel’s chain of command with the help of a trusted informant, Dominic (Joe Gilgun), who spouts graphic descriptions of the various ways the cartel could kill Mazur if he’s found out. If his predictions don’t quite pan out, a series of shocking killings does transpire as Mazur readies the nets for a bust of unprecedented proportions.

After gaining the trust of the flamboyantly unstable Javier Ospina, scion of a Colombian political family played with caricature-evading flounce and menace by Yul Vazquez, Mazur makes his way into the good graces of Escobar’s chief distributor, Miami-based Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt, suavity epitomized).

The double-date friendship that arises between the faux engaged couple and the Alcainos (Elena Anaya plays Gloria) is designed to deliver an emotional charge that never arrives. Rather than letting the tensions play out in the layered performances of Cranston and Kruger, the movie hammers them home.

With Kruger’s Kathy sparking to her role-playing in decisive ways and the sting culminating in an elaborately staged fake wedding, the story’s complications and paradoxes are clear enough without such heavy-handed nudges.

As a doomed informant, Michael Paré gets to deliver a colourful spiel on politics that works as a concise character portrait. There are a number of memorable supporting turns, among them Simón Andreu’s low-level money handler, who watches Mazur with unspoken suspicion. But not every role resonates. – Reuters/ Hollywood Reporter