Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Running with the Devil—and Nic Cage

If you have ever wondered about the mark-up on premium cocaine, this film explains it all. A lot of people in the smuggling chain touch each shipment, so that necessarily escalates the price. It also means a lot of low-level drug-runners have an opportunity to cut and siphon off the product. “The Boss’s” semi-retired lieutenant, known simply as “The Cook,” gets pulled back into service to investigate their network in screenwriter-director Jason Cabell’s Running with the Devil, which opens this Friday in New York.

The Boss is not pleased about the adulterated junk his outfit has inadvertently put on the street, but his minimal concern comes too late for “The Agent in Charge,” whose sister and brother-in-law overdose from its toxicity. It will be personal for her as she pursues the far-flung drug operation, but it is just another day at the office for the Cook when he arrives in Colombia, even though he was hoping to mostly handle his work via telecommuting.

Starting with “The Farmer,” the Cook and his colleague, “The Executioner” (his role is pretty clear), follow and test the shipment as it makes its way from “The Farmer” up through Mexico. However, it turns out the creep lethally cutting the cocaine is the Cook’s old crony in the States, known only as “The Man” (but he really isn’t).

Despite what we have been conditioned to expect, Running is far more ambitious than most Nic Cage VOD movies-of-the-week (unlike 211 or Looking Glass). Presumably, that is why he signed on, even though he does not have much opportunities for his patented raging and roaring. The Cook is calm and reserved. That is why he is effective. Instead, it is Laurence Fishburne who gets to careen from meltdown to meltdown as the Man. He is a complete bug-eyed, profusely sweating, out-of-control mess as the Man. This could very well be his most in-your-face, let-it-all-hang-out performance since What’s Love Got to Do with It. Awkwardly, he is also involved in all the film’s dirty parts, some of which are pretty gross.

Believe it or not, Cage does world-weary resignation pretty well as the Cook. Barry Pepper and Cole Hauser both project menacing professionalism in spades, as the Boss and the Executioner. However, Adam Goldberg’s “Snitch” is a little too schticky to be credible.

Initially, Running feels like Cabell is stringing together random scenes and hoping a narrative will emerge, but it should be readily conceded, he really does tie everything together. So, if you start the film, stick with it. It lacks the bluesy tragedy of Eastwood’s The Mule, but it is cold, bracing corrective to the cartel-porn Netflix produces. It has merit, but anyone intrigued can safely wait until it streams for free on Netflix or Prime. In the very short term, Running with the Devil opens this Friday (9/20) in New York, at the Cinema Village.