A stylish and well-acted espionage thriller, “The Infiltrator” is also naggingly familiar. Based on the true story of middle-aged FBI agent Bob Mazur (Bryan Cranston) who went undercover to take down Pablo Escobar’s drug trafficking regime in 1986, it has the measured tone of a slick procedural, while Cranston’s grave delivery effectively conveys the trepidatious nature of his character’s situation. At the same time, this is nothing new for Cranston, for whom “Breaking Bad” still casts a heavy shadow. Once again, he’s a gruff, well-intentioned family man who gets in over his head, and must plot an escape route. This was even the case with his Oscar-nominated turn in “Trumbo.” These days, Cranston’s movie career has been restricted by variations on the same routine.
Which doesn’t mean “The Infiltrator” isn’t absorbing to a certain extent. Shot with a gritty, high-contrast look by cinematographer Joshua Reis, the movie delivers a moody, suspenseful account of Robert’s steady acclimation into an underground world. It just follows a straightforward progression to a climactic confrontation and offers little in the way of surprise. Shepherded along by street-wise partner Emir Abreau (John Leguizamo, in a show-stealing supporting role), Robert must juggle his ability to remain credible in the presence of scheming crime lord Robert Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt) while keeping his concerned wife at bay, even as she remains clueless about the full extent of his secret mission.
If that last bit sounds familiar, it’s because Cranston went through those very same motions in “Breaking Bad,” in a dramatic arc stretched across multiple seasons, and it’s impossible not to see a simpler variation on a similar dynamic here reduced to a handful of scenes.
Of course, Robert’s no Walter White. He’s a stern, driven man so addicted to fighting for justice that he ignored the opportunity to retire years earlier. He’s obsessed with the systematic failure of the war on drugs during its peak, and plots his own approach to solving the problem with scientific precision. “Don’t follow the drugs,” he tells one peer. “Follow the money.” And so he does, posing as an accountant pushing funds to a complicit bank while getting chummy with the bad guys.
The best twist in this otherwise straightforward drama finds Robert fumbling when forced to entertain the advances of a stripper while out partying with some of his new criminal pals. Grasping for an excuse, he invents a fiancee on the spot — a lie that forces his FBI cohorts to create one for him. She arrives in the form of new partner Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), a nimble figure of deception who adds to the smoke-and-mirrors scheme that allows Robert to continue circling his prey. Kruger’s a good fit for this double-edged role, as she gabs with the crime boss’ wife while secretly gathering intel, but she’s mostly underutilized as Bob’s story remains centerstage. Once the pair conceive of a plan to take town their targets at a mock wedding, “The Infiltrator” simply plods along to a predictable showdown. Director Brad Furman, working from Ellen Sue Brown’s script, maintains an elegant atmosphere sustained by smart characterizations, though none of that can rescue the movie from slowly unwinding in its final act.
Nevertheless, Furman manages to enliven the material with a handful of tense sequences. As the criminal world grows suspicious of his involvement with his antics, Bob finds himself in the midst of a jog while a mysterious car trails behind him. It’s a subtle device that grows increasingly unsettling, in large part due to the contrast of Bob’s tranquil suburban neighborhood with the ominous threat he has dragged into it. In another similarly eerie moment, he sits quietly with his main target as the pair share a drink over news reports of a murdered informant.
While these engaging bits contribute to a sense of uncertainty over the nature of Bob’s plan, “The Infiltrator” ends almost too neatly, as if its biggest trick was merely the anticipation that something could go wrong. One could argue, of course, that its basis in real events mandates that outcome, but the movie seems to take the inevitability of that conclusion for granted.
After a few initial missteps, Cranston’s good-natured character can do no wrong, and “The Infiltrator” takes cues from his progression by creating the sense that his scheme is so perfectly realized it can just glide along to a perfect finish.
Cranston’s role has a softening effect on the material. Bob’s like a heroic Walter White, risking everything to gain control, but actually doing it for good reasons. So far, Cranston has struggled to bring moral ambiguity into his post-“Breaking Bad” movie career. A stone-faced villain in “Cold Comes the Night” and a no-nonsense Hollywood revolutionary in “Trumbo,” he has yet to find the a grey area that matches his greatest television achievement. Knowing how compelling he can be when tasked with playing an anti-hero, there’s something inherently underwhelming about watching him play just another good guy.
“The Infiltrator” opens nationwide on Wednesday, July 13.