How can a blood-soaked crime story take all the elements of classic neo-noir thrillers and become a perfect storm of tedium?
You couldn’t ask for a better starter kit for edge-of-the-seat excitement. “The Infiltrator,” based on the true story of a 1980s U.S. Customs sting to crush a money-laundering scheme for Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, has it all. Gory assassinations, secretive espionage, car-flipping, hotsy-totsy strip club scenes, cool period costumes, an ensemble of accomplished actors.
Bryan Cranston and John Leguizamo are mismatched undercover feds forced to work together, and Benjamin Bratt plays a top lieutenant of the South American cartels. Director Brad Furman gave us 2011’s “The Lincoln Lawyer,” widely seen as one of the cornerstones of Matthew McConaughey’s career reboot.
The payoff? It’s like betting a mountain of chips on a seemingly charmed roll of the dice and coming up snake eyes.
Cranston plays real-life federal agent Robert Mazur, whose memoir inspired this adaptation. A former IRS accountant, Mazur donned false identities to worm his way deep into international mobsters’ financial schemes and record their conversations. It’s edgy work. Through it all, his job was to stay in character, not return fire.
The focus on Mazur’s nerve-racking duties and the difficulties carrying over to his marriage is one of the film’s many gaffes. The character has qualities to admire — he’s dedicated, incorruptible, methodical — but not exactly scrappy. What he does in his dangerous liaisons is often less than exciting cinema.
Cranston pulls mob bosses into meat-and-potatoes discussions of their banking undertakings, then flips the hidden switch to his briefcase’s voice recorder. His most explosive outburst comes when he takes his long-ignored wife out to a lavish restaurant to celebrate their anniversary. His cover is threatened when a gang member unexpectedly walks up to the couple’s table. To preserve his false identity, Cranston calls over their waiter, lambastes him with profanity for bringing the wrong dessert cake, and slams the server’s face into the frosting. His greatest body wound comes when a microphone wired to his chest short circuits and gives him a very painful zap. Sometimes he’s endangered by drive-by killers (aiming at other people) or gun-to-the-temples hit men (also targeting other people).
This is the kind of film that deserves Jason Statham front and center with full gun holsters at his arms, hips and at least one ankle. It also needs a script that unites its onscreen action in a tense logical chain. The screenplay, by Ellen Brown Furman (the filmmaker’s mother), treats the events onscreen like so much disconnected happenstance, with characters wandering in and slipping back offscreen at random. The CIA is implicated in the story’s drug activities, then ignored. The ticking clock to a big showdown, which often powers standard crime sagas, doesn’t seem to have been wound up and set in motion here.
Cranston brings a decent level of gravitas to his role as the chamelon Mazur, an odd bit of meta-performance, as if he’s playing the role of a man playing a role. Leguizamo delivers some juice as his short-fused wingman. Despite Bratt’s solid performance as a courtly gangster, his part here seems like an exercise in deja vu; he has played similar underworld-Latino roles in “Snitch,” “Ride Along 2,” “Traffic” and “Blood In, Blood Out.” A been there, done that feeling runs throughout. The biggest crime featured onscreen here is boredom.