“It’s Cocaine’s World, We’re All Just Living in It”
Written and directed by Jason Cabell
Starring Laurence Fishburne, Nicolas Cage Natalia Reyes
MPAA rating: R for violence and disturbing images, drug use, strong sexual content, and language
Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes
by Hunter Bush
Near the end of Jason Cabell's solo directorial debut Running with the Devil, a backpack full of drugs falls in a mountain stream and is swept away by the current, which is actually a pretty apt visual metaphor for the film as a whole. This movie is about drugs - cocaine specifically - and the ways in which it is a part of the lives of everyone it encounters, but the whole thing is fairly dispassionate. We meet all these players up and down the totem pole - distinguished by titles like The Cook or The Executioner or The Boss or whatever - but they're hard to care about because this is not really their story, it's cocaine's story. Everyone in this is a supporting player to Cocaine.
In very little time, writer / director Jason Cabell shows us the world of the film and it's clear from the jump that it's cocaine's world and we're all just living in it. A naked man with a bag over his head, passed out handcuffed to a toilet is awoken and taken out to presumably be executed; in a bustling nightclub, people indulge themselves on dance floors and in bathrooms while the music builds; in a residential neighborhood a young girl tells her bus driver that she couldn't wake up her parents that morning. After that, the characters begin to be introduced. The young girl's aunt (Leslie Bibb) is The Agent in Charge (a DEA agent) and with her sister's overdose, her war on drugs now has personal stakes. We meet The Cook (Nicolas Cage) who runs the kitchen at a restaurant and donates to a local children's soccer league, The Man (Laurence Fishburne) an oversexed drug dealer breaking rule #1 of dealing drugs - never get high on your own supply - and eventually The Boss (Barry Pepper) who runs the whole operation remotely from Vancouver. My personal favorite was The Farmer (Clifton Collins Jr.) who enlists the aid of his wife (Natalia Reyes) and two elementary school children to make the raw cocaine in Columbia before funneling it north through an elaborate series of who-cares non-characters who only occasionally, briefly interact with anyone of any importance. Besides Cocaine. To tie it into that backpack-in-a-mountain-stream metaphor above, the various drug mules and border-crossers (one of whom sky-dives!) are the river and the main cast are just the rocks, branches and, I dunno maybe a salmon; all the things that help nudge Cocaine in the right direction to get where it's going.
Running with the Devil seems so thoroughly-researched, so factually obsessed with the minutiae of cocaine production and smuggling, that I was honestly surprised to learn it *was not* based on any outside source though Cabell, an ex-Navy SEAL, purportedly based it on "true events". Regardless, this is a total Dad flick; a 60 Minutes exposé on the cocaine epidemic wrapped in just enough of a story to qualify as a movie. That story involves the overdoses on the west coast. Somewhere along the smuggle chain, the coke is getting cut with something that's killing people, simultaneously drawing federal attention and eliminating clientele so The Boss tasks The Cook to start with The Farmer in Columbia and follow the coke home, checking its purity at every stop along the way to find out who is cutting it and with what.
Imagine The Lord of the Rings if, instead of forming a Fellowship to transport the One Ring together into Mordor, one character would just hand it to some random Elf or Man or Ent (the sentient trees folk) to carry it for a while until another character would pop in for a scene. Frodo cooks the ring up in his oddly charming artisanal mom-and-pop ring manufacturing business and hands it off to be smuggled north into Mexico where Samwise puts it in a specially-marked backpack so that the border agents will ignore it when the smuggler encounters a routine checkpoint and on and on with Gandalf popping in periodically to check the ring's purity. Listen. I know this analogy doesn't translate 1:1 but you get what I'm saying, yeah? Also if I follow it further, I guess that makes Merry & Pippin into Laurence Fishburne & Adam Goldberg's characters, just doing rails for second breakfast and having prostitute orgies, and that's not a corner of my mind I'm super willing to explore, so...
Things start to gel once the whole shebang reaches Seattle, The Cook's home, where he's set to meet up with Fishburne & Goldberg who have both been flipped by the DEA and are ready to rat on Cage at the drop of a hat. We not only have the majority of our cast in one location, interacting, but there are some definite stakes and the dramatic irony that we the audience know Cage is walking into a set-up. Yet the whole thing plays out fairly anticlimactically so we can keep bopping along because again, Cabell isn't really concerned with any of these human beings, he's telling Cocaine's story.
In all fairness, he tells it well. Running with the Devil is clearly directed and decently well-written even though I didn't find it especially engaging. There's a matter-of-fact-ness in the direction that works especially well in moments of violence, presenting them as routine within the world these characters inhabit and that's a smart and thoughtful choice and it would work here if we could care more easily about these characters. If I was more engaged with them, the violence would be even more staggering because it would have emotional impact beyond the pure shock. To that end, I think the casting is excellent. Almost every actor is doing their best to connect you to the narrative though they honestly have very little to work with. There isn't very much dialogue at all and of what there is, the vast majority is about our old buddy Cocaine in one way or another. There's a joke in here somewhere about Cabell wanting to keep the dialogue pure uncut (about) cocaine without any (character) additives, but I can't be bothered.
Ultimately I just didn't engage with Running with the Devil despite the character actor cavalcade of a cast doing their damnedest (Cole Hauser, Peter Facinelli & Keith Jardine appear in addition to those mentioned above). It attempts the scope of something like Soderbergh's Traffic and the neo-noir tone of Villeneuve's Sicario, both drug-centric films that resonated better with me, but without the characters to support either endeavor. That doesn't make it a bad film, just one that's not for me.
*In Theaters, On Demand and Digital on September 20, 2019