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film review

The Infiltrator, starring Bryan Cranston (centre), is based on U.S. Customs special agent Robert Mazur’s autobiography of the same name.Liam Daniel

"I'm an undercover narcotics agent. I sit with murderers and made men, and I lie. I lie my ass off."

I've watched enough deep-cover movies to know when I'm being played, and The Infiltrator, a true-life crime drama about Colombian cocaine dealers and international money launderers in the Reagan just-say-no era, feels suspiciously like a con to me. Its trailer whips up a high-drama fuss, and damn it if it doesn't have Bryan Cranston as its face – its mustachioed and leftover Donnie Brasco sunglasses face. Unfortunately, the script is held together with something much less adhesive than, say, Amy Adams's American Hustle blouse tape.

Which isn't to say that viewers won't get their money's worth out of The Infiltrator. Breaking Bad star Cranston is capable as any at playing a family man in a high-wire balancing act as a federal-lawman drug-world penetrator. John Leguizamo is excellent as his amped-up, devil-may-care sidekick. And Diane Kruger steals scenes as a rookie agent with some tricks up her sleeves. But the plot is confusing at times – characters come and go in the dark – and the film's tautness is the routine kind.

Based on U.S. Customs special agent Robert Mazur's autobiography of the same name, the film is directed by Mark Furman, the man who said "action" to Cranston, Leguizamo and Matthew McConaughey in 2011's The Lincoln Lawyer. The screenplay, you might wish to know, was written by Ellen Brown Furman, the director's mother. She has deadly serious characters saying such things as: "Informants walk on the dark side of the street. Then they walk to the clean side, but their shoes are still muddy."

Furman himself fails to convey the Florida of '86 setting. One of Mazur's kids has a lava lamp in his bedroom, and the family passes the time playing Clue in the living room. You don't need to be Professor Plum to know those pop-culture knickknacks aren't altogether eighties inspired. Why not a splash of Miami Vice on a clunky TV instead?

The Infiltrator begins in a graveyard, where agent Mazur and his wild-eyed partner search for fresh undercover identities. Mazur spots the gravestone of Robert Luigi Musella – that's who he'll be, Bob Musella.

The fake Musella's story is that he's a banker for the Mob, thus a way into the international drug trade. The target is cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar and his suave lieutenant, Roberto Alcaino (played by the able Benjamin Bratt).

Agent Mazur's job is to gain the trust of the drug dealers and the banks who launder the Benjamins. Cranston's job is to basically play two characters. One is the devoted family man and loving husband – "Promise me this is the last one," his weary wife pleads – and the other is as the outsized, high-life-living financier.

Standard things happen, including covers nearly being blown and an elaborate voodoo ceremony in which our slightly freaked-out operative is put to the test. Wait, what? Doesn't matter.

What matters is gaining trust, and the agent is very, very good at that, whether schmoozing with corrupt bankers or partying with the bad boys.

When working to gain one's confidence, it all comes down to the acting. And the best thing you can say about The Infiltrator is that Cranston and company are entirely persuasive in a film that doesn't make the best use of their stellar efforts.