A big undercover operation, like the one U.S. Customs agent Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) leads to break down the money-laundering side of Pablo Escobar's criminal empire in The Infiltrator, should play out like a caper in its own right. Indeed, Mazur himself tells his partner, Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), one of the maxims of any heist movie: it's carelessness about the small details that will bring down the big plan.
Director Brad Furman has taken that advice to heart, and the details of his execution are solid. Frame after frame is tightly composed and the motion is elegantly blocked. Some of the showier steadicam shots suggest that Furman has been watching a lot of Brian De Palma's work lately, which is appropriate for a story about drug-smugglers working out of Florida. Unfortunately what gets lost among all these solid details is the overall story that would tie them all together. It's a movie that works scene-by-scene, but is shaky and loose over its two-hour run.
Which is not to say that there's nothing to be gained. Cranston is among the best of today's character actors, and it's always great to see a film offer him a lead. Mazur is even a hazy mirror image of Cranston's most famous role as Walter White in Breaking Bad: a man who adopts an alter ego -- "Robert Musella" -- intending to do good, but who finds himself alienated from his family and trapped in the role.
Cranston gives us a great performance of Mazur's agony as his undercover job starts to cross over and affect his marriage. It balances on one side against Juliet Aubrey's supporting role as Evelyn Mazur, worried that she's going to lose her husband, if not to violence then to the role itself. She gets less room to work than Anna Gunn did as Skyler White, but we see echoes of the same fears.
On the other side, Cranston is supported by Diane Kruger as his cover-fiancée, first-time undercover agent Kathy Ertz. The two have marvelous chemistry together as they build up relationships with Panamanian bankers (Art Malik, Saïd Taghmaoui) and the wealthy elites of the Escobar organization like Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt). This chemistry gives real weight to Evelyn's fears about losing Robert.
That said, for all the great work showing the psychological burden Mazur bears in an operation like this one, we're left twisting as to exactly why he does it in the first place. Turning back to Breaking Bad again, Walter White's reasons for each step were always made clear, even as they shifted over the course of the series. Here, Mazur's motivations are a mystery. We open on one small-scale bust that ends with an injury that could have allowed him to retire immediately; the fact that he didn't is referenced over and over again, but it's never clear why he chose instead to take on the full might of the Medellín Cartel. Once he's inside it's obvious that he continues because there's no other option, but we're still left wondering what it is about this man that pushed him to that first, fateful decision.
There's also a fair bit of confusion about the arc of the operation itself. The general sweep is clear enough: make contact with some mid-level money launderers, offering "Musella's" legitimate business fronts; draw ties to corrupt international bankers doing business in Panama; work up to Escobar's high-level lieutenants. All the while they're gathering intelligence, building cases so that eventually they can gather everyone together and bust the whole ring. But the mechanics of how we get from one step to the next is anything but clear.
Mazur seems to stumble from one revelation to the next, with no clear plan in mind. Bankers show up, offer to bend the rules, and then disappear for long stretches. A visually striking Santería ritual seems to serve as a kind of initiation, but we get only the haziest notion of what led Mazur into it, and what he got out of the ordeal. Meanwhile, Abreu is left with the opening contacts. His scenes give us glimpses of the more violent, street-level operations of the cartel, but their relationship with Mazur's side are muddled at best. I'm certain Mazur and Abreu must have had a plan, if only to pacify their boss at Customs (Amy Ryan) and the attached U.S. Attorney (Jason Isaacs), but we never get a good sense of it.
The result is a film that can lead us smoothly and continuously through the preparations for a wedding, but not from the beginning to the end of its own central story. It can show us what its lead endures in each moment, but not what he wants from it. It can impress us, scene by scene, with the skill on display in crafting it, but leave little impression in its wake.
Rating: 3 out of 5