‘The Infiltrator’
Director:
 Brad Furman
Stars: Bryan Cranston, Benjamin Bratt
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

The camera trails Bryan Cranston from behind to the devil’s horns-rocking strains of Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.” It’s a disarmingly light way to start a movie like “The Infiltrator,” about a man who could have died the worst, most torture porn-y death at any second for a number of years straight. Cranston is Robert Mazur, a legendary undercover agent whose greatest feat was getting in deep with the Pablo Escobar cartel in the 1980s and bringing down over 80 members in one fell swoop. These are high stakes, but the mood is, at least for awhile, wild and fun. Though he at one point lifts a bit straight from Michael Mann’s “The Insider,” Brad Furman (“The Lincoln Lawyer”) usually tries for a Scorsese knock-off vibe of heinous behavior mixed with a soundtrack of obvious pop hits.

Underneath it, though, is a strong foundation of deep feeling and an uncommon understanding of its subject. It gets both the strange thrill and the inevitable strain of going deep. Cranston’s Mazur is a stubborn super-professional who ignores safety and often his family to pose as a businessman who wanted in on the Escobar drug pie. His chief mark becomes Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), one of the drug lord’s higher-ups, who likes to keep his hands free of blood, preferring to live the high life. A man of integrity and fine taste, he somehow manages not to smell the rat stench emanating from Mazur like stink lines. In fact, Mazur’s game is so tight the two become fast besties.

RELATED: Interview: Benjamin Bratt on "The Infiltrator" and finding sympathy for the devil

Mazur is essentially the world’s most method-iest method actor, so committed to his role — because if he wasn’t he’d be dead — that at one point he even switches into character in front of his poor wife when they run into one of his deadly associates. (The movie makes perhaps too big a point of showing that he never cheated on her, even with the fellow agent, played by Diane Kruger, who winds up playing his fake-fiance.) His journey into hell is crazy and at times surreal, with Cranston sometimes doing little but staring in disbelief at the degenerate nuttiness he’s gotten himself into.

But its most perverse twist on the undercover genre is this: It finds sympathy for one of the devils. That would be Alcaino, who trusts Mazur, just as Mazur had planned. We should want him to go down, and rightly so; he’s in a deadly business, and if he turned wise to Mazur he wouldn’t be so nice. And yet the movie spends so much time on their faux-friendship that eventually we can’t help feeling for the one being duped. The climactic bust is large and spectacular and hilariously ambitious, but Furman makes sure we see how the busted perps react, trains his camera on faces stained with loyalty betrayed. It makes “The Infiltrator” more than just a stranger-than-fiction horrorshow — and makes up for this being yet another movie that wastes Amy Ryan, who for no discernible reason is saddled with playing Mazur’s stock pissed-off boss. No movie should get reviews that don’t mention Amy Ryan till the penultimate sentence.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge