There's no shortage of drug trade dramas on the big and small screens, and Bryan Cranston has the unique misfortune of having been in one of the best. It makes his decision to go anywhere near that genre again a curious choice.
"The Infiltrator," starring Cranston as an undercover agent who loses track of himself in the glamour of the lie, is not "Breaking Bad," nor is it trying to be. Yet the shadow of that defining, once-in-a-lifetime role continues to follow the actor as he reaches beyond Walter White.
The film is actually based on a true story — that of federal agent Bob Mazur (Cranston), who in the mid-1980s collected evidence around the money laundering practices of the bigwigs in the drug trade for a number of years by posing as Bob Musella, a fancy business man with mob ties. He followed the money in the most literal sense, befriending those in the drug business and the crooked bankers embroiled in the operation of shuffling the dirty money around legitimate institutions.
The years-long operation led to the arrest and indictment of 85 big time criminals.
But for such an extraordinary story, "The Infiltrator," from director Brad Furman, feels very by the books. That's not necessarily a bad thing for those looking for a straightforward crime drama. But passable is not enough to stand out in this already overcrowded genre.
It's framed as a "one last job" for Mazur, a family man who dabbles in undercover work that has been getting a little dangerous. He's skeptical of his partner Emir (John Leguizamo, who was in Furman's "The Lincoln Lawyer" with Cranston), a fellow undercover agent in it for the thrills, but it's his job and he's going to see it through. And whaddaya know, Mazur finds out he kind of likes living the high life as Musella — the expensive clothes and cars, the marbled mansions, the all-night parties and the power of being a trusted insider in the high-stakes hustle.
He indulges in nearly everything except for women, which gets him in a bit of trouble when he declines a paid-for prostitute because he says he's engaged. His boss (Amy Ryan) then has to back up his lie by assigning a green agent, Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), to pose as Musella's fiancé.
Kruger's Kathy is frustratingly underused. She's little more than eye candy in Bob's game and then Furman expects us to care when the film inserts a scene between her and Mazur's real wife Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) where Kathy has to pick up Mazur's real wedding tux for his fake wedding as Musella.
I wish there had been a narrative break here like they used in "The Big Short" to tell the audience that yes, this preposterous encounter really did happen. Because the clumsy way in which it's executed not only doesn't achieve the emotional depth it thinks it does, but is a glaring and borderline offensive contrivance rooted in some retrograde assumptions about women.
"The Infiltrator" might have done well to take a page from "Argo," which knew to let the characters service the story, instead of using the story to service the character. Cranston is good and fearsome as Mazur, but he still feels underdeveloped. Also, "The Infiltrator" often feels more manipulative than informative, like the late-in-the-game entry of Pablo Escobar confidant Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt) and his loving family which sparks a crisis of conscience in Mazur as the clock ticks down to the big bust.
Defaulting to "big and movie-like" just makes everything feel clichéd, when interesting and true would have been more than sufficient.
What: "The Infiltrator." Directed by Brad Furman. A Broad Green Pictures release
With: Bryan Cranston, Diane Kruger, John Leguizamo, Benjamin Bratt, Amy Ryan
Stars (out of four):
MPAA rating: R — restricted; under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian — for "strong violence, language throughout, some sexual content and drug material"
Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes
Playing at: Beacon Cinema (Pittsfield) and Triplex Cinema (Great Barrington)