Too reliant on genre clichés and wafer-thin characters to say anything about the drug trade.
Though hardly the first drug network narrative, Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, which captured the insoluble nature of the drug war by exposing how massively interconnected the underground economy really was, pointed toward present-day attempts to reckon with the hopeless mire of unsolvable political quagmires. As the average person becomes more aware of how entrenched nearly every social ill is in a system designed to maintain imbalance and misery, films have struggled to capture the Gordian knot of legitimate and clandestine forces entwined in a scheme that enriches the few while immisserating the many. Running with the Devil attempts to tackle the War on Drugs from the same macro vantage point as Traffic, tracing the ways that the cocaine trade affects matters both great and small. But director Jason Cabell’s leaden thriller is too reliant on genre clichés and wafer-thin characters to say anything about the drug trade.
The film’s first few minutes dart erratically between places and characters captured in stereotypical images of power and duress. A scene of a nude, hooded man being tortured gives way to overdoses in white American suburbs. Characters are introduced only as titles, such as “The Cook” (Nicolas Cage), a mild-mannered chef who moonlights as a ranking member of a cartel, or “The Boss” (Barry Pepper), his superior. The film has it all: crooked DEA agents in the pocket of the cartels, respectable drug frontmen, montages of doing blow, and a knotty narrative in which intercepted cocaine shipments are connected to an entire web of double-crosses. The series of betrayals and twists are structured with no particular care for establishing a status quo to be upended. The great failing of network narratives, that the connections between characters matters more than the characters themselves, is readily apparent here, particularly as Cabell does not even bother to name anyone to underline that each person is there only to fill a necessary role.
With nothing to cling to, the film’s drama trudges through the motions, and even the actors can barely commit to their lines. It’s been years since Cage looked this disinterested to be in a film, delivering his lines with a flat monotone that communicates neither menace nor professionalism. Pepper, too, does little to imbue his corporate druglord with any particular sense of danger, only momentarily coming to life in one of those scenes that dots seemingly every DTV-quality low-budget thriller in which the antagonist inexplicably monologues while cooking. Even stabs at visual quirkiness, like a scene in which Laurence Fishburne’s well-connected addict snorts cocaine while a series of superimposed, sped-up images in the background show him having sex with prostitutes all over his flat, feel lifeless and neutered, nothing more than titillation to pad out the runtime.
Cabell, a former Navy Seal, wrote the film based on true events, though it’s difficult to see what, exactly, motivated him to film the story. Furthermore, the film falls back too often on tedious post-Tarantino clichés, such as a scene in which a drug lord invites a chronically under-delivering mule to dinner, slits the man’s throat while calmly talking to him, then beckons another man to come and take the deceased’s place at the table. There are no revelations here about the way that a humble but lethal cocaine farmer in South America can exist in the same ecosystem as white-collar executives in the United States. Running with the Devil is steeped in the paranoia of the War on Drugs, but perhaps the nicest thing you can say about it is that its drama is so muted and focused so relentlessly on its American exploiters that it at least avoids sliding into the fervent racism and xenophobia that so often accompanies the topic.