IT MAY BE impossible to completely screw up an undercover cop movie, with the very nature of the premise guaranteeing some vicarious hopscotching over the morality line. Judged on plot alone, The Infiltrator is a solid, mid-level walk on the seedy side, with enough based-on-fact dirty business to hold the interest. When you factor in a terrific-even-for-him lead performance by Bryan Cranston, however, it zooms up the ranks into something well worth leaving the couch for.

Sporting a sensational ’80s pornstache, Cranston plays Robert Mazur, an undercover narcotics agent following the money behind the cocaine pipeline into America. As he gets closer to Pablo Escobar’s inner circle, the danger keeps ratcheting up. Director Brad Furman, whose The Lincoln Lawyer displayed a firm understanding of the crime genre, does similarly good work here, blending the considerable intricacies of the story and dashes of retro gangster movie swagger (cue the vintage Rush tracks) without ever reaching embarrassing levels of faux-Scorsese. The effectiveness is bolstered by fine performances from Benjamin Bratt, Diane Kruger, and particularly Yul Vazquez as a white-suited cartel enforcer who seems to consist entirely of deviant behaviors.

But enough about everything else: How about that Cranston? Expectations for him these days are probably unfair, especially coming off of the extended triumph of Breaking Bad, where he created a morally decaying protagonist who may never have actually been all that good of a guy to begin with. Here, though, he flips that persona brilliantly, as a family man whose inherent decency becomes a liability, especially as the despicable behaviors stack up around him. Even when he’s deep into character, his eyes threaten to give him away. Such is the power of his aura that he even manages to keep John Leguizamo, who plays his partner, in relatively non-obnoxious check. Frankly, an Oscar seems like the least we can do.