While Cranston's never been better on the big screen, you've seen better versions of this movie many times before
If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it, as they say. Which is why if you’re Bryan Cranston, fresh from graduating off the back of a TV show that most of the English-speaking world considers the best ever made, it makes sense to stick with what you know. Which is why we find Cranston dealing with temptation and loyalty while dealing with the ruthless drug trade in America. Only this time around, instead of being a mild-mannered teacher with a thirsty ambition, he’s a stoic and ballsy customs officer who cottons on to the concept of following the money. The money lining the pockets of none other than Pablo Escobar and the infamous Medellín drug cartel.
Having already establishing Robert Mazur as an undercover type willing to go the extra mile, provided that mile is above board, to get his man in the opening scene, this agent leaves his wife and kids behind to build a fast-living new identity as Bob Musella. Sporting shiny pin-striped suits, crocodile-skin cowboy boots, and talking faster than someone who’s just done a line of the white powder acting as a new currency in Florida, Musella works deep to worm his way into at first the business of the drug lords and then into their hearts. What better way to throw someone under the bus than become their bus-driving friend?
Set in the neon-lit Florida of the mid 1980s, director Brad Furman (working off of an autobiography his mother adapted for screen) paints Miami is a sheen of conscious consumerist misery, creating a dirty and seedy world where huge houses, sharp suits, and beautiful women go hand in hand with corrupt bankers, homoerotic homicidal maniacs, drive-by shootings and dodgy equipment nearly exposing the undercover agents while they’re in the thick of it. A stand-out scene, featuring fellow agent John Leguizamo dealing with a none-too-pleased snitch is a simple and understated example of good direction and brilliantly understated performance, with desperation and grit etched across the underused actor’s face.
And yet, there’s not much more to marvel in the film. The performances, led by Cranston and Diane Kruger – reminding us that Inglorious Basterds was not her pony’s singular trick – are magnetic and thrilling, with the pair forced into pretending to be in love and enjoying their new lifestyle a little too much. Olympia Dukakis, who has two rather inconsequential scenes that you’d wonder did she put up the money for the production budget, chews up her brief time on screen in what is a very welcome cameo that brings some comic relief. But we’ve seen all this undercover stuff a million times before. Particularly when it comes to his drip of a wife who gets nothing to do but grow increasingly annoyed. As Ev, Juliet Aubrey makes the most of nothing, in a role so dull it might as well have been written out of the script.
Certainly, this is Cranston’s finest work on the big screen so far, getting even more to work with than he did in his Oscar-nominated work on Trumbo. But the film also suffers by constantly trying to stay one step ahead of the audience, leading to bizarre sequences that feel like they were edited into the film in a haphazard order and which, while ostensibly meant to ratchet up the tension, make very little sense instead. Take, for instance, Musella’s introduction to one branch of Escobar’s business through a deadly game of jungle voodoo. It’s a scene that comes out of nowhere, kicking and screaming and firing guns, and then disappears back into the foliage.
Verdict: ★★★☆☆ Frequently tense, but unsure of the emotional message it wants to convey, you’ve seen stories like this before, and done better. But Cranston and co make the most of what they’ve got.