Had they ever occupied the same universe, Walter White might have met his match in Robert Mazur.
And I’m thinking Bryan Cranston can’t be overmatched by any role that comes his way.
How versatile and smooth and sublime is Cranston that we bought every inch of his performance as the high school chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin on “Breaking Bad” — and he’s just as convincing as a federal government agent who burrows deep undercover and gains the trust of the highest echelons of the Medellin cartel in “The Infiltrator.”
He’s really good at playing bad, and a complete marvel at playing a good guy.
What with Cranston’s groundbreaking work on the aforementioned television series, his stage and HBO portrayals of LBJ, his Oscar-nominated turn in “Trumbo,” nifty stuff in “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “Godzilla” and even “Get a Job,” and now his breathtakingly fine performance in this film, has any other actor produced such an impressive body of work over the last seven or eight years?
Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by U.S. Customs Special Agent Robert Mazur, “The Infiltrator” is a fictionalized telling of “Operation C-Chase,” a massive undercover effort in the mid-1980s that to this day is considered one of the most successful drug-busting operations in the history of the United States.
Cranston’s Bob Mazur is a Florida-based veteran Customs agent with the classic undercover thriller conundrum, aka “Donnie Brasco Syndrome.”
At home, Bob’s a solid family man with a lovely and devoted wife (Juliet Aubrey), and two great kids (Lara Decaro and Niall Hayes). They’re corny and wonderful. Heck, they play board games at night.
But on the job, Bob is deep, deep, deep undercover as Bob Musella, a flashy, Mob-connected money launderer with an opulent lifestyle, a beautiful “fiancée” (Diane Kruger’s Kathy Ertz is actually a federal agent as well) and enough clout to filter tens of millions of dollars in drug money.
John Leguizamo gives one of the finest performances of his career as undercover agent Emir Abreu, a colorful and unpredictable character who is paired up with Bob against Bob’s better judgment. But it’s Emir who has the connections to the connections to the connections, and it’s Emir who has Bob’s back when things get ugly.
At times “The Infiltrator” fills the screen with so many players on both sides of the law I could have used a scorecard to suss out everyone’s place on the pyramid. And there are moments when the intricacies of the money laundering process verge on the tedious.
Small matters. Director Brad Furman, working with a script written by his mother, that’s right his mother, Ellen Brown Furman, is a gifted stylist who delivers consistently arresting visuals, accompanied by pop/rock tunes (everything from “Tom Sawyer” by Rush to “I Can’t Wait” by Nu Shooz to “Eminence Front” by the Who) possibly inspired by the Martin Scorsese playbook. “The Infiltrator” is a great-looking, well-paced, wickedly funny and seriously tense thriller, bolstered by an ensemble cast as good as I’ve seen in any film this year.
Joe Gilgun (AMC’s “The Preacher”), an amazing chameleon of an actor, is remarkable as Dominic, an apparent psychopath who Bob springs from prison to watch Bob’s back. Dominic’s descriptions of what the Cartel will do to Bob and his family if they learn his true identity are beyond chilling.
Michael Pare — you got it, Eddie from “Eddie and the Cruisers” —as a great five-minute cameo. Benjamin Bratt shines as Roberto Alcaino, one of Pablo Escobar’s most trusted distributors. Amy Ryan dons her patented no-nonsense persona as Bob’s supervisor.
The hits just keep on coming — but front and center we have Cranston, sporting midnight-black hair and a ridiculous 1980s mustache, but always commanding the screen, whether it’s in a quiet moment with his children, a shocking encounter that leaves him covered with blood, or a night on the town with his wife in which he has to segue from Bob the married guy to Bob the ruthless kingpin when one of Escobar’s associates happens upon them in a restaurant.
Like every other “based on a true story” movie, “The Infiltrator” engages in cinematic shorthand and manufactures events that never happened — but the vast majority of the main characters have real-life counterparts, and many of the scenes depicted in the film played out in real life.
Mazur’s story (and his book) is so compelling it was almost inevitable we’d see a movie one day — and the movie we got is one of the best of the year.
Broad Green Pictures presents a film directed by Brad Furman and written by Ellen Brown Furman, based on Robert Mazur’s biography. Running time: 127 minutes. Rated R (for strong violence, language throughout, some sexual content and drug material). Opens Wednesday at local theaters.