The Infiltrator

Bryan Cranston goes undercover to catch a kingpin in this based-on-a-true-story thiller

Bryan Cranston in 'The Infiltrator.' Credit: Liam Daniel/Broad Green Pictures

One of the great things to come out of Breaking Bad, besides its standing as one of the best shows in TV history, is the emergence of Bryan Cranston as a screen-filling dramatic actor of the first rank. Cranston was hilarious as the hassled dad on Fox's Malcolm in the Middle for six seasons ending in 2006, but when he broke bad the world saw him with new eyes. Three Emmys later, plus an Oscar nomination as Best Actor for Trumbo and a Tony (and maybe another Emmy) for playing LBJ on stage/for HBO in All the Way, Cranston, now 60, is in his prime.

He is certainly the juiciest, joltingest thing about The Infiltrator, a real-life crime drama that gets the scuzzy atmosphere right but rarely rises to his level. Luckily, Cranston is the whole show. You can't take your eyes off him. He plays Robert Mazur, a Florida-based federal agent who went undercover as a money-launderer in the mid-1980s  to help take down Pablo Escobar's Colombian drug cartel and the banks that funded it.

The role has similarities to Breaking Bad's Walter White in the way Cranston expertly gets under the skin of a great pretender. But Mazur, using the alias Bob Musella, never lets the temptations of sex, drugs and dirty money corrupt his essential integrity. At least that's how Mazur tells it in his 2009 memoir; The Infiltrator is one of  those "based on a true story" suspense thrillers that never quite convinces you that what you're seeing and hearing is fact. It's Cranston who makes you suspend disbelief. He doesn't make a false move. Director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer), working from a script by — get this! — his mother, Ellen Brown Furman, takes a literal, by-the-numbers approach to plot details.

There's Robert the family man, all domesticated in Tampa with wife, Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey), and their two adored kids. Then there's Bobby the slick player who's able the infiltrate the criminal world with the help of his natural charm and  a loose-cannon undercover agent named Emir (a fine, feisty John Leguizamo). Furman milks the "double life" theme until its udders groan, especially when inexperienced agent Kathy Ertz (a knockout Diane Kruger) is asked to pose as Mazur's fiancé to fool crooked bankers and underworld bad guys. And these dudes are bad, especially Escobar's money manager Ospina (Yul Vázquez). Known as a "half homo" with a killer cruel streak, Ospina grabs Bobby's crotch almost on first meeting. Things intensify when Bobby won't let a stripper blow him at a group orgy. This double agent stuff can be a strain.

The film touches a nerve when Bobby and Kathy almost start believing their own con and grow close to Escobar's elegant lieutenant, Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), and his wife, Elena (Gloria Alcaino). They even grow close to each other, finding an unrealized sexual tension from the act of being in danger together.

Sadly, Furman keeps shoving the movie into the box of clichés he thinks the audience wants. We don't, and you can tell that Cranston doesn't want it either. But the script castrates him, and the movie needs a real sense of danger it doesn't have, except in one sizzling scene in which Bobby is caught out at a restaurant by one of Escobar's crew. Except Bobby isn't Bobby at this moment, he's Robert taking his real wife out for their anniversary. In a split second, Cranston changes his character from regular Joe to raging psycho — and you believe it utterly. He's extraordinary. The Infiltrator just settles for being same old/same old.