The Informer is a thriller shipped with familiar parts but designed with a flair for character work as well as careful consideration of the consequences that come from blindly following codes rooted in carnage. It’s packed with scenes that effectively operate on several layers of subtext and / or subterfuge. It’s got a cast strong enough to keep you thinking about what each person knows and all they’re trying to withhold. Plus, the credits placement of a research consultant ahead of a second-unit director lets you know where director / co-writer Andrea di Stefano’s head is at — more the verisimilitude of violent lifestyles than how vivid the blood that is shed.

Shot in 2017 and shelved until now, di Stefano’s adaptation of a Swedish crime novel moves with the ticking-clock horsepower of a Harlan Coben thriller and, quite honestly, more heft than you’d expect. Scenes crackle both with the energy of actors tearing into dialogue and each other, and the thrilling sensation of characters’ territorial pissing on jurisdictional and moral grounds. If not for the Pavlovian chirps and chimes of cell phones, The Informer could just as easily take place a half-century ago — a compliment to its general smolder that remains immersive and immediate as its protagonist’s predicament escalates.

Pete Koslow (Joel Kinnaman) is a former Gulf War sniper struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and staring down 20 years for manslaughter after killing a guy who threatened his wife (Ana de Armas). Yes, you can giggle at what the serious version of Con Air might have looked like while knowing The Informer represents a throwback to the simple pleasures of such late-’90s thrillers. 

Seizing on Pete’s past connections and cohorts, a pair of FBI agents (Rosamund Pike and Clive Owen) have dangled a pardon in exchange for Pete’s participation in an undercover sting to take down the Polish mafia. After their two-year operation goes fatally awry in the homestretch, it leaves the feds scrambling for plausible deniability and the Polish don meting out punishment for Pete: Take the fall on a small crime, accept a five-year prison sentence and commandeer the drug trade inside. If Pete can do that, well, the mob won’t kill his family. Pete’s FBI handlers tell him they can get him out quickly, provided he can get sufficient evidence inside the prison. But then there’s a pesky NYPD cop (Common) sniffing on the edges of all these plans and a ruthless Polish mercenary (an impressively feral Mateusz Kościukiewicz) to complicate matters.

The Informer lays its charges well amid a minefield of mistrust, triggering displays of power both vulgar or barely visible. On one hand, Owen — more oily and odious than ever — lectures Pike on not giving into “the luxury of your precious feelings.” On the other, a bulky henchman carrying Pete’s daughter’s tiny purple sleeping bag emphasizes his size relative to the damage he could perform. The latter is one of several layered compositions from cinematographer Daniel Katz, in visual lockstep with di Stefano’s viewpoint of violence: It’s less of an eruption to excite you than the inevitable outcome of a dreary downward spiral. Case in point, the rugged and raw depiction of the requisite prison brawls.

Its players are potently assembled, too. A Hollywood also-ran praying for that Suicide Squad sequel to hit, Kinnaman plays Pete as a sort of action-hero John Hawkes. So often trapped in roles beneath her talent since Gone Girl, Pike brings a gravity that suggests her character is also behind a weighty 8-ball. Common’s moments of humor feel like an extension of the character’s overconfidence rather than a clashing tone. Owen and de Armas are given less nuance to explore but still command their brief scenes. There is a moment of intercutting between several of these characters’ panicked faces that plays like the end of a great 24 episode, in which you find yourself unexpectedly excited to see what any of them might do next.

Also like that Fox series, di Stefano’s film indulges just a smidge of disbelief to resolve itself. Then again: Every kettle’s got to whistle to let you know it’s at full boil. By confidently heating up a compelling story of corruption and corrosive trust, The Informer achieves scalding temperatures.