It was inevitable that Bryan Cranston would find himself playing a collection of cardboard gangster types following the success of ‘Breaking Bad’. That’s just how typecasting works. At least it took a while before audiences were treated to his first deeply mediocre crack at the faux ‘Scarface’ bat.
‘The Infiltrator’ comes with all the bad fashion, tacky soundtrack choices, self-importance, and “Based on a True Story” labels one expects from a 1980s Miami cocaine crime story. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have much to offer beyond the most basic genre beats. It’s one of those movies that will have you constantly convinced you’ve seen it before while you’re watching it, because the truth is that you kind of have. You just saw it through the osmosis of the countless crime flicks that inspired director Brad Furman (‘The Lincoln Lawyer’) to make this one.
Cranston stars as another family man dipping into the drug world to support his home life. This time he’s at least a cop. He plays Robert Mazur, an undercover copper in ’80s Miami (which, as ‘Scarface’ gently suggested, had a bit of a cocaine problem). The story opens with him busting a drug dealer as his malfunctioning wire microphone burns a hole in his chest. That’s the sort of injury that he could use to claim some early retirement. However, Mazur is one of those cops who loves his job too damn much to retire over such piddling matters as person safety. So, he’s given a new assignment by his tough-as-nails boss (Amy Ryan) and gets a goofy partner (John Leguizamo). His mission? Pose as a money launderer to trap a variety of high-ranking dealers and bank officials. You’d better believe that he accepts and gets deeper into the game than he ever imagined.
As you can likely guess from that setup, this is the type of movie in which the hero is just too damn good at his undercover job, so he’s constantly being pressured by folks at work and home that he’s “getting too close” and needs to worry about his safety. The movie is pretty easy to predict scene-by-scene, even if it initially plays out through the messiness of real life. Viewer enjoyment will depend on how often you’ve seen these types of movies before and whether or not you find comfort in those clichés. For anyone seeking a by-the-numbers crime flick, ‘The Infiltrator’ works just fine. It’s confidently shot and well-acted. The script hits all the required emotional beats. It has a few gearshift murders and plenty of sweaty suspense once the lies grow in scale. It’s fine, but unfortunately fine is all it is.
On the plus side, some nice performances slip in. Cranston is obviously a monster actor these days and is more than happy to walk the line between family life and crime life. His wheeling and dealing and happy home life are all believable, and he gets to have a few moments of existential crisis to deliver some big dramatic monologues. It’s larger-than-life but always compelling. Around the edges, folks like John Leguizamo and Amy Ryan do well in cast-to-type genre requirements. Olympia Dukakis gets to play a charismatic relative who sneaks into the undercover game for a few gags (mostly to do with the shocking reveal that she has an actual personality beyond being old). Benjamin Bratt plays one of those lovable drug lords that undercover cops make the mistake of getting too close to. Everyone comes out to play. Sadly, even though they all got character names that came from the real world, they’re all stuck in roles that only exist in cop dramas.
‘The Infiltrator’ isn’t a bad movie so much as an overly familiar and oddly safe one. The era of the Miami cocaine wars was one of completely insane and reckless behavior. ‘Scarface’ only seems like an exaggeration until you hear the actual stories. It’s disappointing that this movie feels so placid and safe. There’s rarely much feeling that this tale could explode into unexpected violence at any time other than when the characters directly state that to the audience. Otherwise, it moves along in strict accordance to genre conventions and can get a little cheesy – especially anytime that director Brad Furman dips into Mazur’s home life, which boasts characters so underwritten that it’s hard to care about the consequences they potentially face.
I suppose there’s still some fun to be had for folks who just want to watch a gangster movie regardless of quality. ‘The Infiltrator’ can certainly scratch that itch. It’s just a shame that a cast this good was assembled for a script this mediocre.