MOVIE BUFF-ET: The Infiltrator plows familiar ground, but Cranston excels in low-key performance

Bryan Cranston, left, and John Leguizamo in The Infiltrator / Broad Green Pictures

One could make a legitimate gripe that Bryan Cranston’s latest film seems too familiar. It’s a crime drama, inspired by true events, that features Cranston as an undercover cop working to take down a major drug cartel.

We’ve all seen that story before on the big and small screens, but just like with your umpteenth Clint Eastwood Western or the latest Marvel movie, a well-told story can be entertaining even if it is familiar. Add the right actor into the mix, and the familiarity fades to the background.

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  • The Infiltrator (R) 2 hrs., 7 mins.
    (AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Rogers Towne)
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  • Ghostbusters (PG-13) 1 hr., 54 mins.
    (AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle)
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  • Undrafted (NR) 1 hr., 40 mins.
    (AMC Fiesta Square)
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Cranston and the rest of the cast lift The Infiltrator from being just another mob story. The star of Breaking Bad and the dad from Malcolm in the Middle transitions well to the big screen as a relatable guy cast into incredible circumstances.

Cranston is in over his head as U.S. customs agent Bob Mazur who thrusts himself in the middle of Pablo Escobar’s drug money-laundering operation in an attempt to take it down from the inside.

The film is based on Mazur’s eponymous autobiography, and the script by Ellen Brown Furman wisely crafts Mazur, who uses the alias Bob Musella, as a capable everyman type, who makes mistakes, but works his way out of them through persuasion and quick wit.

Cranston’s is a character actor. He doesn’t ooze the charisma of a young Al Pacino in Serpcio nor possess the modern cool of Johnny Deep in Donnie Brasco, but Cranston comes off all the more believable without that star power as he bluffs his way onto the outskirts of Escobar’s inner circle.

Cranston’s Mazur is committed family man tugged between his duty at work and his love for his family. He risks his cover several times to remain faithful to his wife. His partner Emir Ebreu (John Leguizamo) calls him to task for not being committed to doing whatever the job takes, even if it’s skirting the law or breaking his vows.

Leguizamo’s performance presents a strong contrast to Cranston in the film. His Ebreu is more like the undercover heroes we’ve become accustomed in films like Rush or Deep Cover, who dote on the edginess of their job. While Brad Furman’s direction could be criticized for its conventionality, this distinction between the two characters is an interesting choice. Usually the more aggressive and action-oriented character becomes the centerpiece of undercover films, rather than the more levelheaded planner.

Not to say Cranston doesn’t show a predator’s glare when need be. In one of the film’s best scenes, Cranston shifts into gangster mode to maintain his cover when he and his wife run into a lower-tier member of Escobar’s cartel while on a dinner date. As blistering has his blow-up in the restaurant is, the car-ride scene where he attempts to reconcile his behavior with his wife is nearly as compelling.

As Cranston maneuvers his way up the food chain, he and his undercover fiancée Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger) develop a true friendship with upper-tier cartel couple Roberto (Benjamin Bratt) and Gloria Alcaino (Elena Anaya), which allows Cranston and his partner to get within striking distance of Escobar.

Like Leguizamo, Bratt and Kruger add even more contrast for Cranston to deftly play against in the movie, which is essentially a character study of how a professional stays true to himself despite the struggling with a deluge of compromising situations.

The Infiltrator may not go down as a classic film. It’s too familiar. However Cranston’s understated performance is as Oscar-worthy as any leading male performance I’ve seen so far this year.

Grade: B

Classic Corner

Double Indemnity

“Yeah, I killed him. I killed him for money, and I killed him for a woman.”

Isn’t that the way it always goes? The quote is a famous line uttered by Fred McMurray as Walter Neff in Billy Wilder’s classic Double Indemnity.

The 1944 film, based on James M. Cain’s sordid, melodramatic novella, set an early and high standard for the film noire with its cynical tone, witty banter and sleazy subject matter. The film is a classic by any standard, with a script by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, creator of private eye Philip Marlow, and if given the chance, the movie holds up well today. Many of the film’s best attributes became conventions of the genre, and that must be kept in mind to avoid the temptation of calling it clichéd.

Neff is an insurance salesman smitten by the forbidden allure of Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson, whose wiles draws Neff into a plot to murder her husband to collect on a life insurance policy that contains — you guessed it — a double indemnity clause. The clause in question pays double if the insured is killed in a particular circumstance laid in the clause, such as riding on a train.

Edward G. Robinson plays claims adjuster Barton Keys, a friend of Neff’s who is excellent at ferretting out the truth amid a tangle of lies.

The plot is lean and simple, but the script is peppered with memorable dialogue. Wilder’s style of direction adds plenty of tension and intrigue as the conspirators begin to turn on each other. The three principle members of the cast crafted storied Hollywood careers, but one could argue they never worked in a better movie than this one.