directed by Brad Furman
Sometimes I wonder about the employee vetting that is done by criminal organizations. It's true that that a middle manager in the organized crime syndicate GREED Inc. can't exactly call up his opposite number in FEAR LLC, and ask if the applicant sitting in front of him really did spend 4 years working in FEAR's murders and executions group and a productive fourteen months overseeing money laundering, import export tax fraud and various other white collar crimes in the Buenos Aires branch. FEAR likely doesn't keep the sort of hiring records and performance reviews that would be necessary to verify such claims. And FEAR might have little interest in sharing personnel information with GREED. All the same, in a milieu where trust is at a premium and various agencies are looking to put you in prison for utterly ridiculous amounts of time, I would think that if you were a criminal you'd want to make doggone sure that the people you're working with were also criminals and not say, U.S. Customs agents. So if someone gives you an Italian name and claims to be connected with certain important people in the New York underworld, wouldn't you try to find out if said person is telling the truth before you bring them into your inner circle and start doing business with them? Well maybe. But on the other hand a lot of criminals tend to be stupid, greedy and very short sighted. That's part of the reason that they are criminals in the first place. And drug use doesn't help. In the 1980s Florida based U.S. Customs Agent Bob Mazur (Bryan Cranston) is at the top of his game. During the day he busts bad guys. In the evening he goes home to his supportive wife Evelyn (Julie Aubry) and their two kids. There's a rather significant difference between Bob's kind helpful nature at home and his much sharper acerbic persona at work. That's probably not different than anyone who has to work though regardless of what their job entails.
As an undercover agent Bob has to be able to switch personalities on a moment's notice. He always has to have an emergency plan when things go wrong. As he tries to impress to others, this is no game. Bob enjoys his work although his wife regularly observes that he has enough time in to retire early. But it's Florida in the eighties. Cocaine is big business. The Colombians are pushing out or absorbing the Italians, Cubans or other rivals. And there's no Colombian organization more successful or more violent than the Medellin cartel presided over by notorious kingpin Pablo Escobar. Because of the explosion of drugs into the US and the resulting carnage, especially in South Florida, Bob's boss Bonni Tischler (Amy Ryan) gets the go-ahead to head up a new task force dedicated to penetrating the cartels, or more specifically their financial networks. The big problem with making millions in illegal cash is being able to hide it, move it, and launder it. That's where Bob will come in. His new assignment is to go undercover, pretending to be a mob-connected banker, and launder cash for the Colombians. Bob has done this on a smaller scale before. And as a trained accountant and previous IRS official Bob has enough banking and financial systems knowledge to satisfy any suspicious gangsters or bankers. What Bob may not have is the specific cultural street smarts needed to fit in. So over his objections he's paired up with Hispanic customs agent Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo). Bob and Emir aren't overly crazy about each other. There is probably some underlying ethnic tension but more importantly they have different styles of undercover work. Emir likes to go with the flow and improvise. Bob prefers to stick closely to his core and methodically build from that. Each man worries that the other man's naivete or carelessness will get him killed. Bob brings in Italian-American gangster Dominic (Joseph Gilgun) to act as his bodyguard and provide some credibility for his claims of Gotham mob ties. And after Bob makes what Emir blasts as a foolish mistake, Bob is forced to work with rookie agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger) who will pretend to be Bob's fiancee. Of course when you look like Diane Kruger and are working in close proximity with an older married man, everyone makes assumptions. This causes additional stress to Bob's marriage.
In no short time Bob is swimming with the sharks. These include polite corrupt bankers like BCCI big shots Amjad Awan (Said Tagmaoui) and Akbar Bilgrami (Art Malik), murderous cartel middle managers Gonzalo Mora (Ruben Ochendiano) and Rudy Armbrecht (Carsten Hayes), paranoid decadent cartel weirdos (Yul Vasquez) and eventually high ranking cartel distribution overseer Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt) and his va-va voom wife Gloria (Elena Anaya). Roberto is an affable classy man's man who's far removed from the dirty side of his business. He has a taste for fine music, good food and good conversation. All the same as he ruefully explains to Bob after Bob has received a nasty warning from Pablo Escobar, Roberto can not tell Pablo what to do. Bob would be wise to give the cartel what they want. Then Roberto and Bob can continue being friends. Otherwise... The director effectively ratchets up the tension throughout the movie. The cartels and bankers are not the only players on the board that Bob and Emir need to worry about. Until the final third of the movie you can believe that anything is going to happen. Both Bob and Emir make some critical mistakes and have some bad luck, together and separately. Cranston really makes you believe in his take on this character. You can almost see the wheels spinning in his brain as he's figuring out which lie he told to which person and how he's going to get them to believe it. The intensity that he brings here makes the movie work for me even though the story is one you've seen before. Although her undercover role initially requires her to dress stylishly and pose, Kruger's character is important to the story. Kathy gives the viewer an alternate way of measuring how the stress is getting to Bob. And by becoming a good friend to Gloria Kathy also helps put Roberto at ease, which is very important to Bob's plans. Kruger's not just eye candy, something the movie emphasizes by deglamorizing her every time she's not seen undercover. Olympia Dukakis has a small role as Bob's streetwise Aunt Vicky. Michael Pare shows up as Barry Seal, harried cartel smuggler and go-between for various other organizations. This was a well made movie based on a true story. The writer and director took some liberties but nothing that damaged the story in my view. As in Donnie Brasco the undercover agent has to be careful not to get to close to the target of the investigation. This movie has plenty of suspense and occasional violence but is not super-violent or bloody.