Now that he's done breaking bad, the only thing left for Bryan Cranston to do is make good on the transition from television to film. Trumbo netted him an Oscar nod and Godzilla saw him hold his own against skyscraping monsters, but he's yet to find his silver-screen Heisenberg. That search continues in The Infiltrator, with Cranston playing real-life U.S. Customs agent Bob Mazur as he goes undercover with the sort of baddies he used to dominate on Breaking Bad.
"Don't be Bobby Loser," his aunt warns him early on. "Be Bobby Somebody." He's just completed a successful, semi-high-stakes operation and used his barbecue to torch the fake IDs that came with his alter ego. Mazur plays board games with his kids and enjoys his domestic revelry, just as he appreciates what little time he's able to spend with the missus. She's one of those boilerplate movie wives, well acted by Juliet Aubrey but given little to do beyond worry after her husband and helplessly observe as he transforms into a different person than the one she married.
There's a restlessness in Bob, an itch that needs scratching — whether he'll cop to it or not. And so he takes on a dangerous, high-profile undercover mission, the kind characters in movies always insist is the last one. It's a money-laundering operation based in Florida with the end goal of catching Pablo Escobar and his cohort with their hands in the cookie jar. If he were played by anyone else — or if The Infiltrator weren't based on a book by a dude who had to be alive in order to write it — you'd probably expect him to end up with a sign reading, "Hola, Customs!" on his head.
Cranston explored where this kind of ambition can lead in Breaking Bad, and here it falls on him to show how the other side of the law toes the line. He fares best when playing off of John Leguizamo as Mazur's partner, the sort of agent who enjoys the exploits of undercover life a bit more than he probably should — the danger, the parties, the excitement.
It's standard operating procedure from there, with Mazur trying (and, increasingly, failing) to compartmentalize his criminal persona as far removed from his law-abiding life as possible. When the two poles begin to meet somewhere in the middle and merge, his marriage and sense of self are called into question.
Only in the interplay between Bob and his primary mark (Benjamin Bratt as one of Escobar's high-ranking go-betweens) do we really feel this. Whether by design or not, The Infiltrator is most notable for the way it draws your sympathy away from Cranston and toward Bratt — he's a drug-war profiteer, sure, but there's little pleasure to be had from watching him get duped by a man he welcomes into his life as a close personal friend. Bob knows this, and now he's the one powerless to stop something that's already been set in motion.
Cranston is such an ace performer that most of us probably wouldn't notice if he were phoning it in, but there's a certain sameness to his portrayal of Mazur that leaves you wondering what the movie might have been had he modulated it more. If he's looking for his signature film role, he'll have to go deeper undercover to find it.
Directed by Brad Furman
Now playing, area theaters