U.S. Customs agent Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston), a straight-as-an-arrow family man, hatches a plan to tackle Florida's cocaine epidemic in the 1980s: Instead of chasing the product itself and busting low-level peddlers, he decides to take down the Medellin Cartel by going undercover as a money launderer in order to follow the cash. He and his new, loose-cannon partner Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) first use an informant to get their foot in the door with Pablo Escobar's infamous crew. Mazur assumes the identity of Bob Musella, a legitimate businessman with a penchant for money laundering, and strikes a deal with the initially distrustful Javier Ospina (Yul Vazquez). Mazur funnels the cartel's profits through a network of massive offshore banks, implicating everyone who touches the dirty cash along the way.
As Mazur ingratiates himself further and further into the cartel, his deceptions grow increasingly complex. A slipup at a strip club, in which he mentions a nonexistent fiancée, forces rookie agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger) to join the undercover operation as his bride-to-be. From there, Mazur and Ertz befriend one of Escobar's top stateside lieutenants, the trusting and well-spoken Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), as well as Alcaino's wife Gloria (Elena Anaya). Alcaino gives him even more responsibilities to handle as their friendship grows, which creates a moral quandary for the agent, who knows their bond is really a sham. Eventually, Mazur and Ertz's cover story is pushed to the brink as they coordinate with their boss (Amy Ryan) on a large-scale bust in the film's final act.
There's no doubt that Robert Mazur's autobiography contained a bevy of material to work with, but director Brad Furman and screenwriter Ellen Brown Furman (the former's mother) can't see the forest for the trees here. The writer-director duo pack in so many characters, conflicts, and motivations that's little room left to develop any relationships or build a sense of narrative payoff. The Infiltrator feels simultaneously rushed and belabored -- its source material would have been a better fit for a miniseries.
The overloaded storytelling is frequently sloppy: A subplot about the CIA stalking Mazur goes nowhere, and a scene in which the agent submits to a voodoo test in order to earn the cartel's approval makes little sense, since he's already handled millions of their money and befriended dozens of Escobar's men. Furman makes no effort to tell us how much time has gone by or even where the action is taking place -- the movie dizzyingly jumps from Tampa to Miami to New York to Colombia, without onscreen text to identify the locations. How many times do we have to hear Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman" during a montage? Why do some of the characters have anachronistic neck tattoos?
Remarkably, though, The Infiltrator is nearly saved by its superb actors. Cranston makes both Mazur and his alter ego of Musella feel like real people, despite the fact that the script doesn't give him the opportunity to depict the psychological effects of his federally mandated duplicity. Kruger, who apparently just doesn't age like the rest of the human race, pulls off the green Ertz with grace and ease. Leguizamo finds the balance between effectively erratic and scenery chewing, and Bratt does well as the loyal-to-a-fault Alcaino.
Furman has a true story and a compelling cast on his side, but his bland direction leaves The Infiltrator struggling to find its own identity and unable to ratchet up the tension. Instead, it ends up as an amalgamation of drug-thriller clichés, one that confirms that following a drug cartel's money by focusing on banking minutia is about as entertaining as it sounds.