The crime thriller genre has been explored thousands of times, with many different approaches, throughout the history of cinema. Some of the best directors in this category, such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian de Palma, and Michael Mann, have continued to develop methods of cultivating fresh and original crime features, while still maintaining the classic familiar aspects of this genre. Seeking out this balance is a challenge even for the most masterful of filmmakers. So, any time a crime-based drama finds its way to the movie screen in one way or another, the production crew should be applauded for their efforts. The level of passion and dedication it takes for an artist to make their vision a reality is commendable, especially in an over-crowded film classification such as the crime thriller. Unfortunately, despite the good intentions and honest efforts offered by many filmmakers, several of these movies simply miss their mark. This is mostly the case with Running with the Devil, written and directed by Jason Cabell.
Drawing influence from his background as a Navy SEAL and experiences with the rampant drug trafficking in certain regions of Central America, Cabell attempts to look at the concept of the drug trade from a unique perspective. Rather than following the situation through the eyes of a singular individual or concentrated group of people, the drug itself is given the primary focus. The story traces the international journey of this product. From “The Farmer” (Clifton Collins Jr.), to the “The Cook” (Nicolas Cage), to “The Man” (Laurence Fishburne), to “The Executioner” (Cole Hauser), the cocaine is being transported by various individuals from diverse backgrounds all the way from Colombia to Canada, where cartel leader “The Boss” (Barry Pepper) eagerly awaits it. Also entering the fold at different points in the narrative are “The Snitch” (Adam Goldberg), and the US Government duo “Agent in Charge” (Leslie Bibb) and her “Number One” (Peter Facinelli).
Each of the characters has an identifiable personality to a certain level. The Farmer, who harvests the cocaine crop, is simply working to support his family, despite the unethical nature of this occupation. The Cook is an idiosyncratic individual who uses his restaurant managerial position as a front for his illegal drug-concocting activities. The Man is a drug-running lunatic, whose lifestyle revolves around, quite frankly, ceaseless debauchery. In an attempt to add another layer to his character, it is revealed that he does actually have a family, but his dangerous way of living has driven them away. Looking to The Executioner, he is another shady drug-trafficker, who is aware of the skills required to maneuver around law enforcement and other hindrances. The Snitch is, unsurprisingly, an unsteady and disloyal cartel accomplice who finds himself in the grip of Agent in Charge, a fierce enforcer who is wholly unafraid to cross legal boundaries to get the job done. She certainly has a personal stake in the matter, one which will not be spoiled here, but it is clear why she acts the way she does throughout the narrative. Interestingly enough, her partner, Number One, is completely oblivious to her volatility. This is difficult to accept as the viewer, considering how close their relationship would have been in reality. Nevertheless, this is how it plays out in this story, however improbable it may appear.
Still, with this many characters to juggle, bumps in the road for the story are expected. It was a valiant effort to stabilize this many intertwining storylines, but the end result is very unbalanced. Ultimately, there are simply too many diverging and converging paths for the audience to form a connection with any of the characters or plot points. This was intentional, to a degree; Isbell desired the center of attraction to be the journey of the cocaine itself. Yet, developing an attachment to an inanimate object is practically impossible. The surrounding environment must have some level of intrigue. But, because of the constant shifting of gears in the narrative, there is little to keep the viewer captivated. The editing and piecing together of this puzzle are disjointed and jumbled. This all detrimentally impacts the pacing and many sequences feel empty and hollow. Audience members may very well find themselves checking their watches every 15 minutes, which is not a good sign in any film. On top of this, some of the twists and surprises in the story are totally predictable tropes, executed with a bland stroke on an already monotonous portrait. What are supposed to be dramatic revelations are little more than dull clarifications. Even the acting and dialogue in these scenes feels unnatural and superficial. Rather than potentially salvaging a subpar sequence, another adverse aspect is added to the fray.
However, some of the respectable technical elements of this film do save it from being entirely unsuccessful. The cinematography, in particular, from DP Cory Geryak is effectively operated. The alluring wide angle shots of the Colombian hillsides, as The Farmer makes his initial portion of the trek with the cocaine, can be seen as a metaphor for the comprehensive ordeal. Just as this figure is a small speck in the wilderness, so too does this particular package of cocaine pale in comparison to the massive worldwide drug trade. This singular delivery of the drug unfavorably affects many people in this story on a direct level, and its indirect impact reaches even further. Multiplying this force by thousands of times might approximate a general number of the millions of people worldwide who suffer consequences from drug trafficking on a daily basis. Despite its shortcomings, this film will begin a conversation concerning the global significance of the drug trade. In addition to the symbolism and visual language present in the cinematography, there are also a handful of well-executed set pieces directed sufficiently by Cabell along with his DP, production designers, and art directors. A few scenes take place inside of a vibrant night club, full of neon lights, pounding music, and dozens of extras. There are so many variables to consider when producing sequences with this structure, including logistical challenges and multiple takes throughout a day to get the perfect cut, and Cabell’s team coherently navigated this equation. This is another testament to the passion and discipline of the filmmakers on this project.
Although speaking in broad terms, while there is nothing unprecedented or extraordinary about this entry into the crime thriller brand, there is a decent amount to appreciate for those willing to seek it out. Running with the Devil is not going to please everybody, and many of the criticisms which will be lobbied against it are justified. Still, the devotion of director Jason Cabell is not up for debate. His endeavor to have this film come to final fruition deserves recognition.
In theaters, on VOD, and digital September 20th, 2019.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.