Just as the highs of a drug trip are almost always accompanied by awful lows the next day, the glamour of the drug business and its violent underbelly are forever linked. The opening images of Running with the Devil display this idea quite neatly, juxtaposing a Goodfellas-inspired entry into a Seattle nightclub with a half-naked man tied to a toilet bowl. To be honest, few films have ever encapsulated the paradoxes of the drug business quite like Running with The Devil, a far-reaching blend of the crime comedy, sly moral tale, and bloody drama. It’s only a shame the execution is so bad. Wasting the talents of its two stars, Nicolas Cage and Laurence Fishburne, it’s the quintessential example of how to ruin a great idea with poor filmmaking.
The brilliance of Running with the Devil‘s core concept lies in its simplicity: tracking a transportation of cocaine all the way from Colombia to Canada via Mexico and the United States. Moving up in price at each waypoint (eventually rising from $1,000 to $31,000 dollars per kilo), cocaine becomes a metaphor for capitalism itself. Perhaps if it had been cut down to just this simple core, it could’ve been something like Triple Frontier meets L’Argent. Instead, this cocaine travelogue has an overbearing and undercooked tale of revenge and betrayal superimposed on top, resulting in a muddy and ultimately underwhelming story.
Cage plays a Quality Control Manager (named “The Cook”) entrusted with making sure nothing is lost along the way. But Fishburne (“The Man”) is one such crooked dealer he should look out for, cutting the cocaine with other drugs, and pocketing the difference. They are both pursued by an any-means-necessary cop (Leslie Bibb), exhaustingly named The Agent in Charge, who is aggrieved by the overdose of her sister. While a more confident director may have used an anthological style to fit these actors neatly into the larger story, Jason Cabell unsatisfyingly cuts haphazardly between all three characters and the cocaine’s journey, giving none of them enough screen time to truly shine.
Nicolas Cage is a great actor when he feels like it, but Running with the Devil gives him little to do. His horn-rimmed glasses and heavy face do most of the lifting for him, as he mumbles his way through another forgettable performance. Fishburne, on the other hand, seems to understand more of the director’s intended sly humour, bringing back the manic charm of his King of New York days. A user of his own supply and purveyor of sex workers, Fishburne delights in his character’s bottom-of-the-barrel desperation. Yet, any deeper understanding of “The Man” is lost under pathetic cliché — missing his daughter’s piano recital, a soppy monologue about his addiction — instead of reaching for genuine complexity.
Running with the Devil is far more successful when it leans into cynical humour, such as the loving family-man (Clifton Collins Jr.) in Colombia who sets his children to work on his cocaine farm, or a bizarre Kubrickian sex romp involving Fishbourne and two hookers. If the whole film was as strangely absurd or deadpan about the world of drug trafficking, Running with the Devil could’ve been a rare treasure indeed. Instead, its half-hearted attempts at profundity sink us back into predictable direct-to-DVD tropes, giving the viewer neither enjoyment or deeper meaning.
Mismatched cuts, abrupt fade-outs, amateurish production values, unnecessary sound effects, and an overall first-draft feel do little to help things, with the film’s vast collection of characters awkwardly compressed into an unsatisfying 85 minutes. Neither trashy enough to be memorable or profound enough to provoke real insight into the drug war, Running with the Devil too often treads a dull, unfocused middle ground. It’s crying out to be remade as a 300-minute epic. You can even cast all the same actors again.
Running With The Devil will be available on Digital Download from 4th November