127 min. | R

Fresh off an Oscar nomination for Trumbo, a great turn as President Lyndon Johnson on HBO’s All The Way, and four Emmy awards for playing Walter White on AMC’s Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston is among the most respected and sought after actors working today. It puts him in a perilous position to choose the right roles to keep his stardom soaring. This film was a darn good choice.

It’s 1985, and the Medellin drug cartel is smuggling 15 tons of cocaine worth $400 million into the United States every week. Enter U.S. Customs Agent Bob Mazur (Cranston), a pro’s pro whose new partner Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) has an “in” with a drug dealer linked to Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar. Working undercover in Tampa, Mazur presents himself as a businessman who can launder drug money back to Colombia through his legitimate companies. Bob earns the trust of drug dealers Gonzalo Mora and Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt).

The Infiltrator is based on a book with the same name by the real Bob Mazur, so surely we’re getting the hero’s version of the story. That’s fine because it feels honest: The difficulty Bob and his fake fiancé, fellow undercover officer Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), have in arresting people with whom they’ve grown close feels palpably real, and you can see the heartache it causes on Cranston and Kruger’s faces. Also, the effect of Bob’s work on his family is present but never overwrought. Juliet Aubrey gives a fine performance as Bob’s wife Evelyn, who’s never histrionic but understandably concerned about her husband’s safety and fidelity. Cranston leads the way as a man in constant danger who understands the stakes and believes in his work and method enough to pull it off.

At 127 minutes the plot moves at a brisk pace, covering the two years Mazur, Abreu and Ertz were undercover in this operation, and the tension remains high throughout. Director Brad Furman infuses the proceedings with a poppy 80s soundtrack, appropriately using Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” over the opening tracking shot of Mazur entering a bowling alley, establishing the mood and tone. Furman then executes an even more impressive tracking shot winding through hotel stairs, down to the lobby and outside to the carport on the day of Bob and Kathy’s fake wedding. It’s masterful camerawork.

This isn’t just a good story; it’s also well made. The violence is never excessive, so the squeamish have nothing to fear. If you hate all the sequels and unoriginal ideas Hollywood keeps throwing up on multiplex screens, this is the kind of movie you’ve been asking for.