In The Infiltrator's opening scene, Bob (Bryan Cranston) swaggers through a Florida bowling alley. He's just about to make a massive drug deal when he feels a burning pain in his chest. The cause is a ready-made metaphor: Bob is an undercover cop, and the microphone strapped to his torso has overheated, making his secret identity a searing liability.
This actually happened — probably — since The Infiltrator is based on former U.S. Customs agent Robert Mazur's memoir of the same name. And if the film doesn't offer an unexpected vantage on the international drug trade (it fits neatly alongside movies like Traffic, Rush, and Escobar: Paradise Lost, instead of carving out a category of its own), it's distinguished by its craft and verve.
The familiarity of the undertaking is exemplified by the cast. Bob is played by Bryan Cranston, who's best known for the druggie drama Breaking Bad. The part of his exuberant informant/sidekick Emir, high on adrenaline rather than cocaine, goes to John Leguizamo, who's set to play Escobar in an upcoming biopic. Also on board, as a gentlemanly thug, is Benjamin Bratt, who looks as if he's auditioning for a shot to play Escobar in yet another coke chronicle.
Director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) delivers on suspense and intrigue, but he doesn't mess with genre conventions. The movie's harsh, bleached-out cinematography is standard visual shorthand for the recent past, and the predictable score even includes Curtis Mayfield's splendid but overused "Pusherman," which has accompanied drug-flick montages since 1972.
After the prologue, our hero turns from busting drugs to chasing drug cash. Under the name Bob Musella, he advertises himself as a money launderer, and soon amasses prominent underworld clients, including Escobar. Ultimately he brings down a huge international bank — true story — but Ellen Brown Furman's screenplay concentrates on the operation's more intimate aspects.
Bob worries about his wife and kids — who do seem unnecessarily vulnerable — while globe-trotting with a make-believe fiancee who's actually a cop. In a photo that accompanies the credits, Kathy Ertz looks like the inexperienced, girl-next-door type the script makes her out to be. But the filmmakers evidently couldn't resist a splash of glamour so they hired Diane Kruger, the multilingual German actress who played Marie Antoinette in Farewell, My Queen. She's eminently watchable, but her Kathy seems more natural when the story flits to Paris than when it's back home in Tampa.
Although not without bloody moments, the movie plays down the savagery of the Escobar cartel. There is a suitably bizarre initiation scene where Bob narrowly avoids a bullet in the head, but the gang's most depraved violence is only discussed, not shown. The killings can even be overly convenient, as when a flamboyant Escobar associate who distrusts Bob just happens to get gunned down.
One undercover-cop-movie cliche that The Infiltrator avoids is the notion that pretend gangsters have to struggle not to become the real thing. Bob never seems at risk of losing his compass, although in one knockout scene he does shock a bystander by committing utterly to his criminal persona.
Emir remains a more ambiguous figure, which is why the movie crackles whenever Leguizamo comes on screen. Bob is always in control, even when pretending otherwise. It's Emir who propels the film, if only occasionally, into exotic emotional territory.