The mere opening salvo of “The Informer” contains nearly enough plot to keep many a lesser shoot-’em-up exercise occupied for an hour or two: Just 10 minutes into Andrea Di Stefano’s undercover-mission-turned-prison-break-thriller, a family has been set on the run, an FBI bust on a Polish drug cartel has gone tensely awry, a character’s identity has been neatly pulled out from under us, and a cop has been shot dead. Somehow, this impersonal but tightly wound Americanization of a Scandi-crime potboiler then continues escalating its short-of-breath narrative for almost two hours. For all “The Informer” lacks in surface style — shot and scored as it is in functional, straight-to-VOD fashion — it remains a surprisingly well-oiled genre machine.
Opening Stateside in the January doldrums, several months after a modestly received late-summer bow in the U.K., this sophomore effort from Italian actor-turned-director Di Stefano is — like his Benicio del Toro-starring debut “Escobar: Paradise Lost” — a B-movie of the honest old school, dignified by the canny casting of consummate professionals who get the job done while plainly marking time. In particular, as the requisite timber-jawed man-against-the-system protagonist, Swedish star Joel Kinnaman brings a stern sense of purpose to proceedings. Slathered in tattoos and cracking nary a smile throughout, he’s not an easily sympathetic presence, but his solemn, weight-of-the-world demeanor lends gravity to the film’s otherwise credibility-defying pileup of action setpieces.
Loosely adapted from the 2016 novel “Three Minutes” by Swedish crime-writing duo Roslund & Hellström, this largely British-funded production relocates the action from Colombia to a vaguely defined New York City, somewhat streamlining its international tangle of heavies: everyone’s indeterminately American save for the generically villainized Polish drug mafia. After doing time for bar-brawling manslaughter, rough-hewn but good-hearted family man Pete Koslow (Kinnaman) wants a quiet life with his wife (Ana de Armas, her thin role all the more glaring in the wake of her “Knives Out” stardom) and daughter. The FBI has other plans for him, however: In exchange for early parole, he’s made to act as an undercover agent in various seamy, ill-organized narcotics busts.
When one goes horribly wrong — in that aforementioned, hopped-up opening act — and a clashing undercover cop is killed, Polish drug lord “the General” (Eugene Lipinski) determines that Pete must take the fall. His returning to prison, meanwhile, suits the Feds, as Pete’s aloof but emotionally invested handler Wilcox (Rosamund Pike) changes tack to bring things down from the inside. Yet corrupt forces from higher up are working against them, as Wilcox’s slithery superior (Clive Owen) threatens to drop the project entirely, while NYPD officer Grens (Common) has his own meddling eye on the case following his colleague’s death.
The ensuing tic-tac-toe game of double- and triple-crossings is busy but coherent: the screenplay, co-written by Di Stefano with genre regulars Rowan Joffe (“Before I Go to Sleep”) and Matt Cook (“Patriots Day”) keeps tidy tabs on the shifting stakes of the whole bloody tangle — even if, admittedly, it doesn’t always give us an urgent reason to care whether Pete’s undone by the mafia or the authorities. In the potentially thankless role of a hands-tied FBI drone with limited backup above and below her station, Pike does a lot of the legwork in humanizing this standoff: The role benefits considerably from her pinched-nerve intelligence and cool chemistry with Kinnaman, even if, five years on from her Oscar nod for “Gone Girl,” she feels a tad overqualified for the assignment.
Tech credits are uniformly proficient, if never quite inspired. In its best sequences, notably that nippily edited introductory sting and a prison lockdown soundtracked to a mesmerically blaring alarm, that back-to-basics quality is prickly and effective; elsewhere, particularly in scenes centred on Common’s underdeveloped cop, the film takes on a TV-procedural quality. Still, in the age of franchise blockbuster bloat, there’s much to be said for an efficient B-movie that knows its place and purpose: Di Stefano, rather like his film’s brawny, brusque hero, has his mind on accomplishing the mission with as little flab and fuss as possible.