Actors like Bryan Cranston might be better off sticking to TV these days.
We’re living in a Golden Age of televised content. TV fare routinely trumps the best of what Hollywood films have to offer. It’s why Cranston’s new film is a deliriously happy exception.
“The Infiltrator” is smart, sophisticated and full of narrative surprises. The only obvious element? The fact that Cranston can crush such a meaty role and keep the camera trained on him the entire running time.
It’s all based on a true story, and even though it certainly withstood a spit polish for dramatic purposes, the results are both faithfully to the truth and rigorously engaging.
Cranston stars as Robert “Bob” Mazur, an undercover agent working the drug beat circa 1985. Only this isn’t a movie where the decade details drown you at every turn. Yes, we see the ’80s excess, but it never detracts from the story, the characters or even the moment.
Bob’s latest assignment finds him “playing” Bob Musella, a money launderer trying to move closer to the era’s biggest druglord.
Bob befriends the kingpin’s top lieutenant (Benjamin Bratt at his most charming), a family man who quickly lets Bob into his inner circle.
That circle is mesmerizing. His team can be loyal, funny and often loving. That’s a far cry from their villainous day jobs. That leave Bob and his cohorts, undercover agents played expertly by John Leguizamo and Diane Kruger to dig deep into Escobar’s pockets. And, of course, stay alive to make some busts.
Cranston famously played a morally twisted soul on “Breaking Bad.” Here, he’s Walter White Knight, a soldier trying to bring down the cartels. Bob is never boring, or stuffy, or even predictable. He’s a flesh and blood hero who suffocates his inner decency to get the job done.
And what a dirty job it is.
Part of the film’s majesty is how it toys with our expectations. One false move, and Bob’s team could be exposed … and likely killed on the spot.
That leaves movie goers waiting for The Moment, the trip up that could ruin everything. It also injects nearly every exchange with tension, the kind so finely manufactured you never mind being spun.
Director Brad Furman works with a sly script from his ma, Ellen Brown Furman. Yes, that’s a first, apparently. It’s also a terrific bit of teamwork.
That script gives the key players a rich tapestry of wrongdoing. It also refuses to meet our expectations. Leguizamo’s character is the live wire, and you know what that means. Only you don’t.
The movie slowly builds tension the old fashioned way. We care about the characters. We aren’t insulted by gaping plot holes. The dialogue is sharp and raw, without any cloying laugh lines or staid sequences.
We’re introduced to fresh supporting players who pose potential plot pivots that refuse to arrive on cue.
Where “The Infiltrator” feels malnourished is on the home front. Bob is trying to keep a stable family life while insuating himself with the criminal underworld.
It’s an uneasy balance on the best of days. We still want more of Bob’s wife (Juliet Aubrey), and how they’ve managed their seemingly sane marriage so far.
For some members of Bob’s team, undercover work is the ultimate rush.
“It’s my drug of choice,” Leguizamo’s character confesses at one point.
It’s that rare, on the nose dialogue snippet that reveals so much. The rest, thankfully, is left for the audience to decode.
“Breaking Bad” let us know Walter White as a very flawed soul, and we rooted him on all the same. The heavies here get a similar blast of humanity. That makes their potential arrests all the more intriguing.
“The Infiltrator” doesn’t wring its hands over the drug wars. We’re left without lectures or talking points. It’s the most mature, thoughtful mainstream film in some time. And boy, did we need that.
IF YOU LIKE ‘THE INFILTRATOR,” try the Netflix series “Narcos”