The Infiltrator ***

Bryan Cranston leads a strong cast in this tense drama about undercover agents, drug lords, and constant danger.

Is it worth $10? Yes

Fresh off an Oscar nomination for “Trumbo” and a great turn as President Lyndon Johnson on HBO’s “All The Way,” not to mention his four Emmy awards for playing Walter White on AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” Bryan Cranston is among the most respected and sought after actors working today. But there’s a downside to this: It puts him in a highly perilous position to choose the right roles to keep his stardom soaring. Turns out “The Infiltrator” was a darn good choice.

It’s 1985, and the Medellin drug cartel is smuggling 15 tons of cocaine worth $400 million into the United States every week. Enter U.S. Customs Agent Bob Mazur (Cranston), a pro’s pro whose new partner Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) has an “in” with a drug dealer linked to Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar. Working undercover in Tampa, Mazur, using the pseudonym Bob Musella, presents himself as a businessman who can launder drug money back to Colombia through his legitimate companies. Bob earns the trust of drug dealers Gonzalo Mora (Simon Andreu), his son (Ruben Ochandiano), and Javier Ospina (Yul Vazquez), and later Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt).

“The Infiltrator” is based on a book with the same name by the real Bob Mazur, so surely we’re getting the hero’s version of the story. That’s fine because it feels honest: The difficulty Bob and his fake fiancé, fellow undercover officer Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), have in arresting people with whom they’ve grown close feels palpably real, and you can see the heartache it causes on Cranston and Kruger’s faces. Also, the effect of Bob’s work on his family is present but never overwrought; Juliet Aubrey gives a fine performance as Bob’s wife Evelyn, who’s never histrionic but is understandably concerned about her husband’s safety and fidelity. Leguizamo, Kruger and the rest of the cast are solid, with Cranston leading the way as a man in constant danger who understand the stakes and believes in his work and method enough to pull it off.

At 127 minutes the plot moves at a brisk pace as it covers the two years Mazur, Abreu and Ertz were undercover in this operation, and the tension remains high throughout. Director Brad Furman (“The Lincoln Lawyer”) infuses the proceedings with a poppy ‘80s soundtrack, appropriately using Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” over the opening tracking shot of Mazur entering a bowling alley, which establishes the film’s mood and tone. To top himself, Furman then executes an even more impressive tracking shot that winds through hotel stairs, down to the lobby and outside to the carport on the day of Bob and Kathy’s fake wedding. It’s masterful camerawork that requires expert timing from the cast and nary a misstep from the cameraman.

So there you have it: “The Infiltrator” isn’t just a good story, it’s also well made. There is violence but it’s never excessive, so the squeamish have nothing to fear. If you hate all the sequels and unoriginal ideas Hollywood keeps throwing up on multiplex screens, this is the kind of movie you’ve been asking for. If you don’t see it studio execs who judge everything with dollar signs will think you didn’t care and we’ll get more “Transformers” movies. Don’t be the reason we keep getting “Transformers” movies.

Did you know?
The scene in which Bob loses his cool with a birthday cake never happened in real life.

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