'Running With the Devil': Film Review

Courtesy of Quiver Distribution
A circle-of-life smuggling film that's mostly lifeless.
9/20/2019

Nicolas Cage plays one link in a smuggling chain in Jason Cabell's drug drama.

From Colombian forests to Vancouver high-rises, Jason Cabell's Running With the Devil introduces around a dozen of the people who get cocaine from the soil to the nightclub, each raising the price a bit at his point of exchange. Or maybe "people" isn't the right word: Though they're often played by well-known actors (including Nicolas Cage and Laurence Fishburne), each character here is known only by a generic name, which splashes across the screen — "AGENT IN CHARGE" — in nearly self-parodic introductory titles. Though not quite as devoid of personality as those names and its boilerplate dialogue, the film nevertheless plays like a flowchart in search of a pulse, a drama whose Traffic-like ambitions aren't matched by narrative inspiration. Commercial prospects are very slim, despite the cast's presumed drawing power.

Opening scenes hustle rather awkwardly (and unconvincingly) around the Americas to suggest the story's scope: a DEA office in Seattle, where Leslie Bibb is the aforementioned agent; Colombia, where Clifton Collins, Jr. plays a coca farmer whose family joins him when they can; and back to Seattle, then "somewhere in Mexico," then to Vancouver, where Barry Pepper is "The Boss" of the whole operation.

Cage and Fishburne play smugglers a level or two below Pepper, Seattle-based felons who could hardly be less alike. Cage has a cover job as the community-minded proprietor of a pizza restaurant; when he's forced to leave town to investigate problems with his cocaine's quality, he tells his worried wife "there are some ... administrative issues I have to attend to."

Fishburne, on the other hand, is a whoremonger with unquenchable appetites who's become addicted to the stuff he sells. We watch the actor pantomime sex and masturbation to cartoonishly unconvincing effect in multiple scenes. Fishburne and Adam Goldberg (who plays his fellow degenerate) are two of the prime offenders in a cast that, almost uniformly, delivers performances well below their usual standard. (Sadly, Cage doesn't take the vacuum of Cabell's direction as an opportunity to go rogue in the manner beloved by crazy-Cage connoisseurs.)

Early on, two opposing figures start to take things personally: Pepper, learning that the product reaching him has been adulterated, sends Cage off on an intercontinental detective mission. (He could have stayed at home, since Fishburne's the culprit.) And Bibb has just seen her sister and brother-in-law killed by overdoses of Fishburne's corrupted coke, sending her on a passionate investigation parallel to Cage's.

Few others in this tapestry realize anything is amiss. Cabell's script follows one shipment from the time it leaves the grower's hands (at $1,600 per kilo) to a Colombian processing factory ($4,000) to a port in Veracruz ($8,000) and onward north, where the price keeps climbing. The film seems to aim for cool, clinical observation, but instead is leaden in many of these scenes, and moments intended to bring the trade's dangers home colorfully reek of cliche: Watch the Mexican kingpin go through the charade of preparing an elegant meal for an underling who's shorting him, only to slit his throat before dessert.

Prospects for drama increase as Cage nears the Canadian border — his pool of suspects growing small, even as Bibb's crew gets close to catching him with a backpack full of drugs. Close calls, double-crosses and surprises await, and yes, running with the boss of Hell will eventually get you burned. But there's oddly little heat between the race's starting point and its destination.

Production company: Patriot Pictures
Distributor: Quiver Distribution
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Laurence Fishburne, Leslie Bibb, Cole Hauser, Peter Facinelli, Barry Pepper, Clifton Collins Jr., Adam Goldberg
Director-screenwriter: Jason Cabell
Producers: Michael Mendelsohn, Jim Steele
Executive producers: Natalie Perrotta, Shea Varge
Director of photography: Cory Geryak
Production designers: Wil Albarez, Scott Christopher Clark
Costume designer: Daniela Moore
Editor: Jordan Goldman
Composer: Reinhold Heil
Casting director: Valerie McCaffrey

Rated R, 100 minutes