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Bryan Cranston is an Actor, you know what I mean? Capital A. He relishes the work, probably because it took him a decade or two, pre-"Breaking Bad," to snag the roles he deserved. (Guest stints on "CHiPs" and "Hill Street Blues" came a long time ago.) With that voice of steel and a face that can go from hangdog to top dog in 0.3 seconds flat, Cranston is gleefully capable of chewing scenery with the best of them — I believe he's still picking little bits of "Trumbo" out of his teeth — but at this busy point in his career, his mixture of confidence and technique is reliably, wholly entertaining.
"The Infiltrator" is a true-crime story, familiar but compelling, about false identities, affording Cranston the chance to play a man who is pretending to be another, more swaggering, more dangerous man. Screenwriter Ellen Brown Furman adapted the 2009 autobiographical account by longtime U.S. Customs agent Robert Mazur, a Tampa-based undercover narcotics specialist who masqueraded as "Bob Musella," money launderer and party host to the Medellin cartel stars.


Sting: In an elaborate sting operation, Mazur weaseled his way into the good graces of the Medellin cartel, right to the top and to the rarefied, lethal realm of Pablo Escobar. To do this, Mazur got himself a glamorous fake fiancee; Diane Kruger takes the role of his fellow deceiver, and she's no less effective, in a no-fuss, keep-the-scenes-moving way, than headliner Cranston.
True, true-ish or fabricated, many of the narrative and character details recall a host of previous drug-related crime dramas. Mazur's partner, brash and risk-prone where Mazur tends toward incremental stealth, is played by John Leguizamo. At this point in our popular culture the mismatched buddy-cop gambit couldn't be more threadbare. Yet when good actors play the material for honest tension, a miracle: You buy it.
Mazur gains the trust of Escobar's associates, including the decadent, unsettling money manager played by Yul Vazquez. Gradually the story focuses on Mazur's social interactions, always with a business rationale, with supercool cartel front man Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt, excellent, sidestepping every cliche) and his wife Gloria (Elena Anaya).
Style: The sting takes Mazur and company from Florida to Central America to Europe. Cinematographer Joshua Reis' garish, heavily saturated color attack stylizes the atmosphere away from the direction of realism. Even so, "The Infiltrator" works best in its unglamorous scenes of everyday deception. Furman, who worked with Cranston on the Matthew McConaughey vehicle "The Lincoln Lawyer," can handle pure action (there's an extremely well-staged bit of vehicular mayhem that, in a good way, comes out of nowhere).

But two smaller scenes stand out here. In one, Mazur is out to dinner with his wife (Juliet Aubrey), not in disguise, not playing Musella. Then an Escobar employee, recognizing his money-laundering pal Bob, comes over to the table, wondering who the woman is. Mazur improvises, quickly, and the scene crackles with nervous suspense.
The other choice moment involves the briefcase, the tape recorder and a malfunction. This is what espionage looks like, finally: a look of momentary human panic on an agent's face, especially if the face belongs to Cranston, when the jig's up.

"THE INFILTRATOR"
3 out of 4 stars
MPAA rating: R (for strong violence, language throughout, some sexual content and drug material)
Running time: 2:07

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