It's hard not to think of Breaking Bad while watching The Infiltrator. And not just because Bryan Cranston stars in both - as Walter White, the chemistry teacher-turned-mad-meth-king in the groundbreaking series, of course, and as Robert Mazur, an undercover G-man who burrows deeply, dirtily, into the world of drug cartels and international money-laundering in Brad Furman's true-crime pic.
Cranston was iconic, a walking tornado of moral crisis, in the former. And he's pretty convincing, too, in The Infiltrator, based on the book by a U.S. Customs agent who rubs up so close to Colombian cocaine kings and corrupt bank barons that when the epic bust finally happens, he feels almost like a traitor.
But the real reason to hold Breaking Bad and The Infiltrator side by side is to consider how much more satisfying the latter might have been as a multipart TV piece.
Teeming with colorful, cutthroat, complex characters - thugs and sophisticates, killers and con artists, straight-arrow feds and shiftless informants, and a hero who jeopardizes his real life (and wife, and kid) as he digs himself deeper into the deception - this is a story that needs time to unfold.
Within the confines of a two-hour feature, elaborate dramas are reduced to rapid-fire sketches. Real people become generic thumbnails - especially when they start hanging out at strip clubs. (Is it possible to make a movie set in the world of drugs and big stacks of cash without the obligatory lap dance scene? Probably not.)
Furman, who directed the hugely enjoyable The Lincoln Lawyer, in which Cranston and his Infiltrator partner John Leguizamo also appeared, replicates Reagan-era South Florida with convincing flair here. There are tracking shots that bring to mind Brian De Palma - specifically the over-the-top Miami mayhem of De Palma's 1983 coke-and-carnage epic, Scarface.
Cranston's Mazur - alias Bob Musella, a name he finds on a gravestone - starts climbing the ladder that he hopes will lead to the inner circle of the Medellín Cartel and the banks that handle its millions. He confabs with mobsters and money men. He's vetted by a voodoo shaman. And he's partnered with a newbie agent, Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), who volunteers to pose as Bob's fiancée.
The pair insinuate themselves into the world of Pablo Escobar lieutenant Roberto Alcaino (a gentlemanly Benjamin Bratt), gaining his trust, his friendship, seats at the family table, on his private jet.
Blood and brains get splattered along the way. There are setbacks, betrayals, panicky moments when a slip of the tongue or a faulty attaché case snap (concealing a tape recorder) could blow the whole operation. An anniversary dinner with his real wife (Juliet Aubrey) turns into a nightmare improvisation for Mazur when a gangland contact comes over to say hello.
"That was the most degrading, vicious, and disgusting thing I've ever seen," his wife tells him, driving home in the miserable aftermath. Caught in the headlights ahead: a vision of their marriage falling apart.
True to its "based on a true story" source material, The Infiltrator's end credits run head shots of the real bankers and drug czars and undercover narcs portrayed in the film, with accompanying prison sentences and career updates. But as solid as Cranston, Leguizamo, Kruger, Bratt, and all the rest are, the built-in constraints of the movie format don't do their real-life counterparts full justice.
Even when justice was served.
**1/2 (Out of four stars)
yDirected by Brad Furman. With Bryan Cranston, John Leguizamo, Diane Kruger, and Benjamin Bratt. Distributed by Broad Green Pictures.
yRunning time: 2 hours, 7 mins.
yParent's guide: R (violence, profanity, sex, drugs, adult themes).