Two formidable shadows hover over The Infiltrator, the true-crime procedural thriller starring Bryan Cranston as a real-life U.S. Customs agent who penetrated the world of crooked international money launderers and world-class Colombian cocaine peddlers, including Pablo Escobar. The first shadow is that of Martin Scorsese, who clearly did not direct this movie about risk-addicted, almost pathologically driven Federal Agent Robert Mazur but whose scuzzy pop music-inflected style is deeply felt—and at the same time, missed. The second is Breaking Bad, Cranston’s mold-shattering TV series in which he played a mild mannered, cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher driven by finances and inner demons to become a meth-cooking monster. The Infiltrator, a good but all too familiar crime saga directed by Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) and adapted, from Mazur’s book, by Ellen Sue Brown, can’t hold a candle to either of them.
To be sure, the details of the operation “C-Chase,” a follow-the-money procedural hatched by Mazur and assisted by streetwise cop Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) and an ex-felon bodyguard (a standout Joseph Gilgun), are sensational and deeply absorbing. But the movie rushes through so many of the great incidents—Mazur taking on the fictitious persona of a high-rolling money launderer named Bob Musella, several nose-dives into sleazy, highly stylized bars and strip clubs to tease out informants, high-stakes dinners with likable drug lords (Benjamin Bratt, nicely underplaying)—that the movie feels disjointed, surfacey. It lacks context and too often settles for cliches and shortcuts.
Exactly what kind of man was Mazur before he ducked retirement and instead agreed to do this one last case? Why is his loving wife so freaked by his behavior when surely he’s been doing dangerous work for decades? How is he able to don his decades-old wedding tuxedo that even passes muster in a wedding ceremony packed with fashion-savvy billionaires and their couture-obsessed wives? Questions nag and keep pulling us out of the action. The sting operation that makes up the bulk of the running time is such a rich, complex, darkly funny globe-hopping thing that the tale cries out for a limited series. Doing the best he can with what he’s handed, Cranston dons an array of wigs and swaggers with the best of them. He is so bloody good that he effortlessly powers through the modestly budgeted movie’s shortcomings, even when we catch the actor lapsing into trademark Walter White dead-eyed, open-mouthed stares.
But every once in awhile he gets a beauty of a scene, such as one in a restaurant when he’s nearly exposed as a fraud by an Escober thug—a heart-pumping tour de force that hints at what his performance could have been in an even better movie. Diane Kruger is terrific as a fed set up to pose as Cranston’s resourceful fiancée, and Amy Ryan and Olympia Dukakis both have fun as, respectively, a nasty federal agent boss and Cranston’s colorful aunt. The wonderful Jason Isaacs pops up for only a scene or two that suggest the movie may have undergone some serious editing. You keep pulling for The Infiltrator to break on through to something special, but it’s largely an imitation of other, better movies.