Something was nagging at me through the opening scenes of The Infiltrator, a new in-too-deep cops and robbers movie from director Brad Furman, starring Bryan Cranston. About an hour in, I finally figured it out: Gene Hackman. Bryan Cranston is a terrific actor, one of the best we’ve got, and with his earthy intelligence, world-weary demeanor, and unflappable credibility, he should be starring in the kind of pictures Gene Hackman used to do. Of course, this is the very definition of wishful thinking, because even Gene Hackman doesn’t star in the kind of pictures Gene Hackman used to – they stopped making them, and so did he. And if a top-notch actor like Bryan Cranston wants to play leading roles, he ends up starring in movies like this one.
It tells the (true, of course) story of Robert Mazur, a U.S. customs cop from a somewhat criminal family working out of Florida, circa the mid-’80s. Frustrated by their small scores, he comes up with a new strategy: rather than trying to follow the drugs to the top of the cartel, they follow the money. He goes undercover as a financial whiz who can “clean” drug cash, and…
You’ve stopped reading, haven’t you? Of course you have, and who can blame you; you’ve seen this story a million times before, on countless television shows and in films from Donnie Brasco (the gold standard) to Deep Cover to In Too Deep to The Departed to Point Break to Miami Vice (film and television versions). Would it surprise you to learn Mazur is a smart guy who initially has to battle his loose cannon partner (John Leguizamo) but learns to trust him? Would it surprise you to learn he becomes so obsessed with his work that he (gasp) forgets his anniversary? Would it surprise you to learn that he earns the trust of a high-ranking kingpin (Benjamin Bratt), and feels guilt for betraying it? Would it surprise you to learn that he finds himself getting a bit too close to his attractive, fake fiancé (Diane Kruger)? It would? Really? You’ve seen movies before, yes?
None of this is to say The Infiltrator doesn’t, on occasion, play; there are good scenes here and there (like an unexpected drive-by and a tense, scary beat with a bleeding envelope), an inspired bit of smart yet sleazy support from Leguizamo, and some reasonably interesting how-it-works stuff w/r/t the banks, the business, and the networks of the money laundering operation. Kruger turns out to be a welcome presence in the second half – when Leguizamo, to the film’s detriment, mostly disappears – with an inspired double-decker performance as both Mazur’s investigative partner and the romantic interest she’s “playing.”
And Cranston is good, but that sort of goes without saying. He is, after all, your go-to guy for projecting intelligence, impatience, and complicated morality; the harnessing of those elements (and several more) are what finally transformed him from a respected utility player to a leading man, via Breaking Bad. But any two hours of that series, chosen at random, are a better showcase of his gifts than the film work it got him – you can’t help but feel the loss when an actor of this complexity is given no more challenge than the saintly martyr of Trumbo or the human placeholder of Godzilla. In fact, the best big-screen work he’s done during and after Breaking Bad has been in films like Drive and Contagion – simply put, character roles. And that says less about Cranston than the era he’s working in.
It’s easy to romanticize the New Hollywood period of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Hackman became a marquee name, but there’s no getting around the fact that it was an era in which an actor who looked like Hackman – or Dustin Hoffman or Al Pacino or Robert De Niro or Karen Black or or Ellen Burstyn – could become a movie star without looking like what a movie star, at that time, tended to look like. But there’s not much of that anymore; lookism, while still present, is a good deal less pervasive on television, but movie stars look like Brad Pitt and Jennifer Lawrence (even when the characters they’re playing probably wouldn’t). And great TV actors like Cranston end up in films like The Infiltrator, which isn’t even a particularly bad movie. It’s just an uninspired one, a rummage sale of leftover parts from other, smarter films. Cranston deserves better, but I’m not hopeful – though I’m sure he’ll be great in the Power Rangers movie.
The Infiltrator is out today.