To write any script or book involving cocaine in the ‘80s and fail to mention the name Pablo Escobar would be sheer ignorance. Anyone with even a peripheral interest in the crime-drama genre should be vaguely familiar with the notorious Colombian drug lord; hell, anyone with HBO in the last fifteen years saw Adrian Grenier don a fake gut and porn ‘stache to play Vincent Chase playing Escobar on Entourage. A supporting role for Cliff Curtis in Blow and a starring one for Benicio del Toro in Paradise Lost, the legendary kingpin of the Medellín cartel has enjoyed a more recent revival of sorts as the central character of Netflix’s new hit series Narcos. So I understand why the marketing campaign for Brad Furman’s new flick The Infiltrator plays up Escobar’s involvement in its plot; Don Pablo’s a bit of a commodity in the genre. Anyone expecting another Escobar biopic is in for disappointment, though; aside from a sole walk-on, he is referred to only in dialogue.
The Infiltrator is a true story, but not Escobar’s story to be told; it is that of Bob Mazur (played by the inimitable Bryan Cranston), an undercover fed who faked his way into the underworld to dismantle an international money laundering scheme affiliated with the Medellín cartel. A Tampa family man, Mazur attempts to sustain his home life and his crumbling marriage while meticulously crafting and maintaining a powerful, credible alter ego–”Bob Musella”–to present to his targets, with the help of his partner Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) and colleague/faux fiancée Kathy Ertz (a quietly intense Diane Kruger). The film deals primarily with the fragile nature of working an undercover investigation: the constant fear of discovery, the painstaking effort to convey verisimilitude, and the occasional blurred lines down the middle of a double life.
As expected, Cranston delivers a characteristically engaging and sympathetic performance, infused with a palpable, appropriately nervous energy (not very Heisenberg; more of a hint of Hal)–an energy that fills in the blanks left by a script that spreads itself too thin trying to be too much at once: action-packed mob movie, suspense thriller, buddy-cop comedy, family-in-crisis drama, etc. (all in their most Hollywood-ized incarnations). The film is most successful when wearing its crime-story hat, but it also gets a little too carried away with that aspect of the story, leaving other storylines (such as the juxtaposition of family life and wannabe-gangster life) a bit underdeveloped. Fortunately Bryan Cranston saves the day, having the cognizance and instinct to milk every opportunity to build tension with his performance, breathing life into the script’s somewhat superficial characterization of Mazur. Without his valiant efforts, this would not be the same film.
A few other notables round out a strong supporting cast, particularly the hilarious, high-strung John Leguizamo (who steals every scene) and the adorably sassy Olympia Dukakis in a rare appearance. Benjamin Bratt is a standout, serving lusty, intense Roberto Alcaino realness (does he ever fucking age?!? Try as you might to stick some grey hair on his face, the man is still HOT). I gotta say, though, not a fan of Joseph Gilgun’s scenery-chomping performance here. He was all nostrils and overdone Noo Yawk accent/swagger. No, dude. But the comic relief award definitely goes to the wildly flamboyant Ospina, played by Yul Vazquez–better known as the “Bob” half of “Cedric and Bob” from Seinfeld. I kept cracking up every time he appeared, waiting for him to berate Bryan Cranston for not wearing the ribbon, and since he was essentially playing the same character, I never got over it.
Let me end by clarifying something: for all my nitpicking in this review, I truly enjoyed watching The Infiltrator. Is it flawed? Yes. Is it fun? Yes. I’m not above a little Hollywood gloss, and a film doesn’t have to be perfectly realistic or perfectly written to work in my eyes. It takes a superior cast to elevate a somewhat inferior script, and Cranston & Co. most assuredly save The Infiltrator from being Pablo Meh-scobar.