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Bryan Cranston and John Leguizamo star in The Infiltrator

Acting is an art form and I’m not sure there is anyone better in that art form today than Bryan Cranston. From his turn on Breaking Bad to an Oscar-nominated performance in Trumbo to even some smaller, but crucial, roles in films such as Argo, Cranston has become one of the most sought-after performers in the film and television industry and it is always a joy to watch him work.

It makes sense that Cranston, one of the top actors working today, would be interested in a film like The Infiltrator, which follows the story of an undercover U.S. Customs official who works his way into the ring of Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar. That’s not because this seems like a tailor-made role for Cranston, but because the film works as an exploration into the act of turning yourself into someone else completely — which is coincidentally what actors do as well.

Cranston stars as Robert Mazur, who along with Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), finagle their way into a money-laundering scheme that includes Escobar, who at this time was near the height of his drug-smuggling power. Mazur must take a new identity and fool some of the men linked to Escobar into thinking he is a new player in this money-laundering game and work his way towards the top to take down some of the largest heads, including Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt).

For the most part, The Infiltrator works like a diet version of most Martin Scorsese films. It has its scum and villainy, but keeps them at arms length and doesn’t succeed at making you feel truly terrified by the people he is dealing with. Cranston does his best, but it is a script riddled with many cliches and for the most part, the film never feels like anything that memorable — rather a mixture of Miami Vice with Goodfellas.

It becomes more interesting once Mazur gets deeper and deeper into this money-laundering web and begins to lose a grip on this normal life. In the most effective scene of the film, Mazur is at dinner with his wife (played by Juliet Aubrey) and is sitting near the rear of the restaurant because he forgot to make a reservation for their anniversary. As they finish their dinner, the waiter comes to collect their food and Mazur complains about their seat location to his wife, but loud enough for the waiter to pick it up. The waiter leaves and Mazur is approached by one of the associates from the money-laundering scheme, who recognizes he as his other identity, Bob Musella.

Like a switch turning on, Mazur leaps from the table and instantly is in character. He is foul, boisterous, and has lie after lie sliding through his teeth. He tells the man that his wife is actually his secretary, who he is treating to a nice dinner for her birthday and invites the man to sit with them. The waiter returns with Mazur’s anniversary cake and is immediately yelled at by Mazur about how they screwed it up because it should read “Happy Birthday.”

This second round with the waiter is different. The first time, Mazur had no power to make an impact with the worker, but now (under his new guise), he is rejuvenated and goes as far as to push the waiter’s face into the cake in a show of dominance.

Where The Infiltrator leaves out any interesting point about this story, it makes up for with this through-line about the work of an actor and how this craft requires turning into someone you may not be. Cranston seems to dig into this concept with the character of Mazur, and his work is unparalleled by any of the other players involved.

His Jekyll and Hyde approach to being Mazur or his alias, Bob Musella, drives The Infiltrator into a territory that seems fresh and evocative — mainly due to the work Cranston does with this concept. As he struggles to thread the line between the two characters, and struggles even more to keep Bob Musella going when some of the events happening around him are heinous and wrong, it creates the film’s greatest moments of tension and emotion.

The technical craft and engaging writing of some of the better works of Scorsese are lacking from The Infiltrator, but the film makes up for that with a strong performance by Cranston and an exploration into the work of an actor and the two-faced mentality that has to be taken to succeed.

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