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Since departing Breaking Bad, the great Bryan Cranston has been in need of a pole position worthy of his might. He’s cropped up in various big budget blockbusters, slumming it for some of those Heisenberg stacks of green. He even earned himself an Oscar nomination in last year’s somewhat-well-received Trumbo. Impressive though the performance was, the film itself was not much more than a by-the-numbers biopic told without much style or aplomb. Which brings us to The Infiltrator, another half-decent true life story led by Cranston that, while in-and-of-itself is no great wonder of filmmaking, gives the charismatic performer a role to sink his pearly whites into.

The Infiltrator sees Cranston step into the shoes of real life U.S. Customs agent Robert Mazur, an undercover agent who becomes enrapt in taking down the money men running Pablo Escobar’s multi-billion dollar cocaine empire. Mazur is flanked by Emir Abreau (John Leguizamo), a nontraditional fed who’s a bit of a loose cannon. We see the misfitted pair crack into the lower rungs of Escobar’s enterprise, working their way through middle money managers to reach the big kahunas sitting atop their ivory towers. Hence C-Chase (the shorthand for the massive federal take down of the Colombian crime lord’s fiscal reserves) is born.

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One of the big fish in the crosshairs is Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), one of Escobar’s top financial dogs and  one of The Infiltrator’s sloppiest plot points. Director Brad Furman, working from a script penned by wife Ellen Sue Brown (which is turn is adapted from Mazur’s memoirs), runs aground an issue he’s confronted in the past: over-plotting. Excessive exposition means that story lines and relationships that should be lent more meat remain relatively paper thin while other seemingly unnecessary plot points are hedged in in pursuit of narrative girth.

Take Alcaino’s relationship with Mazur. A slip of the lip in front of some Escobar heavies has Mazur hinting at a nonexistent fiancee. The Customs office, led by an over-the-top brassy Amy Ryan, recruits a operations virgin to fit the bill. That newbie is Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger) who proves more than capable under fire. As Mazur and Ertz, under the presumption of pre-martial status, cozy up to Alcaino and wife Gloria (Elena Anaya), a bond of deep friendship is forged that doesn’t exactly translate. Furman infers an unwavering conflict of interest born of this relationship that is just not supported by the text. We’re left with sloppy expository dialogue that tells us how the characters feel rather than organically allowing it develop into something of substance and true meaning.

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With a script frequently stumbling to take stock of its characters, the performances are surprisingly captivating. Cranston thrives in the realm of Mazur’s moral grey, his fiery take reaching a fever pitch when he’s forced to assume his dark undercover role in front of his wife. It’s the conflict of good and evil that swirls within him that allows the thespian to have his cake and eat it too. That the underlying conflict is glossed over more than it’s explored proves The Infiltrator‘s greatest disappointment but Cranston remains game nonetheless.

Leguizamo too excels playing a role custom-tailored to his talents. He’s the pithy injection of dark humor the film leans on in its darkest hours and Leguizamo’s crusty appeal gives the film some needed edge. Sloppy pacing and strange editing means his character kind of dips in and out of the film without notice but, as is the tendency in The Infiltrator, when he’s asked to come out and play, he swings for the fences.

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As The Infiltrator rounds the bases heading, it hits on the many cliches of the crime drama with little novelty. Heading into the home stretch, few stops are pulled. There’s a mild threat poised to Mazur involving an ominous calling card that goes exactly nowhere. The unsettling intent remains unfortunately benign. As the many relationships Mazur’s built with the various underbelly of Escobar’s world are revealed for the sand traps they are, the impact is muted by Furman’s inability to craft nuance. And for a film that exists to thrill, The Infiltrator has few narrative surprises up its sleeve.

CONCLUSION: Suffering a straight-forward and busy script, Brad Furman’s ‘The Infiltrator’ may not deliver the highs crime-drama junkies crave but nonetheless offers compelling performances from Bryan Cranston and John Leguizamo.

C

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