Watching Running with the Devil is sort of like witnessing the world’s most inexplicably boring magic trick. It’s showy, and it manages to pull off a respectable sort of sleight of hand, but instead of being “wow”-ed you’ll probably be left asking “why?” The glitz of this glamour comes courtesy of the cast, headlined by Nic Cage and Laurence Fishburne (in roles they probably decided over a round of rock-paper-scissors) and backed up by the likes of Leslie Bibb, Clifton Collins Jr., Barry Pepper, Cole Hauser, Adam Goldberg, and Peter Facinelli. Everyone is very good, but they have almost nothing to work with. Their characters don’t even have names. Ultimately, they’re just a part of the distraction — as is the plot, which promises violence, mystery, and intrigue in the dangerous world of international drug dealing. That promise is empty, though. Running with the Devil is hyper-focused on telling the story of how a single shipment of cocaine moves from a farmer in Colombia to a cartel big wig in Vancouver, and all the familiar faces and momentary twists in the journey are the lure to pull you in.
But I’ll admit — I fell for the trick and watched the whole damn thing, waiting for some purpose to resolve itself out of all this flashy window dressing. So trust me when I tell you: there is no greater point to this venture. You’ll pay to watch a big dumb Nic Cage crime movie, and you’ll wind up watching a weirdly fictionalized docudrama about the business of cocaine the likes of which even the History Channel would think twice about airing. That’s it. That’s the trick. Turns out, the cocaine is the real star of this movie, which you can tell be cause it boasts the majority of the screen time and is the only thing on screen with anything resembling an actual name. In this case, it’s a symbol on the packages — a stamp of a little red devil. Because even the title, Running with the Devil, isn’t some cheeky metaphor. IT’S LITERAL, YOU SEE, BECAUSE IT’S ABOUT DRUG-RUNNING WITH “DEVIL” COCAINE, DO YOU GET IT NOW? AND ALSO DRUGS ARE BAD?
Ahem. All the other characters are introduced with catchy title-cards boasting their roles in this fancy smuggling ring. Nic Cage plays “The Cook” — a pizzeria owner by day who makes his real money as a mid-level coke flunky. He’s primarily the go-between connecting “The Boss” (Pepper), the untouchable CEO of, uh, Cocaine Inc. or whatever, and “The Man” (Fishburne), the dude who manages the street-level product distribution. The Man, of course, is also working a side-hustle of his own — namely, he’s cutting some of the coke with fentanyl AND heroin and trying to create a whole new market for junk that’ll f*ck your ass up worse than it already is. The problem is, he’s still perfecting his little cocaine cocktail, and his customers keep dying as he works out the recipe. Which brings us to “The Agent In Charge” (Bibb), the DEA agent tasked with investigating the case of the no good, very bad coke. But lest you think she’s busting her ass trying to take down this cartel because it’s her job, the movie introduces her getting called to the scene of her sister’s overdose so you know she has a personal stake in taking these guys down or whatever. Which seems like a conflict of interest, and maybe another agent should take over? But then they wouldn’t have a personal stake, and without a personal stake would the character even matter?
These were the sorts of things I wondered while I watched this movie.
Ultimately, the DEA’s investigation is a minor complication. The REAL investigation is the one The Boss tasks The Cook with: figure out where in the supply chain their drugs are getting contaminated! You know, basic quality control admin stuff. He sends The Cook to Colombia with “The Executioner” (Hauser) as back-up, and together they shadow a shipment of cocaine from production to delivery. It all starts with “The Farmer” (Collins Jr. — and yes, I’m getting as sick of these names as you are, but I have to call them something), who takes his kids and his wife out to pick the leaves that’ll be ground up and processed into bricks of white powder. He then hikes to Bogotá to deliver the pure cocaine to The Cook, who drives it to Cartagena, where it is put on a boat and shipped to Veracruz, Mexico. And so on and so forth as the drugs get passed through many hands on their long trip north. The progress passes in painstaking detail, despite the fact that we already know exactly where the fault in the supply chain lies (The Man is currently trying to dispose of two overdosed hookers as we speak!), and to make it worse each leg of the journey is accompanied by a generic map graphic and a title card telling you what the cost per kilo is at that particular juncture (spoiler alert: the price keeps going up!). Oh sure, there’s some murder along the way, and The Executioner has to step in a few times to keep the shipment from getting jacked, but mostly you’ll be left wondering why any of this matters since we all know where this is going.
From backpacks to pallets, from bikes to boats to buses, our little drug shipment-that-could finally makes it’s way into the United States… via a carrier who parachutes with it into Death Valley, where The Cook picks him up. But it still needs to get to Vancouver, across a whole other border, so The Cook calls The Man and they go on a wilderness trek. And I just realized I’ve described basically all of the movie, barring what I suppose you’d call the “climax” so I guess I should stop before I “spoil” something? Sure, there’s a couple of twists in the resolution. Somebody falls off a mountain. Somebody gets chained to a toilet. Somebody gets shot when they think they’re home free. There are plenty of things that happen that should make for a satisfying conclusion, but don’t for a very simple reason: they pertain to characters who are merely two-dimensional avatars, fulfilling a function in a story that has never been about them. I could describe every convolution of the plot for you, and it still wouldn’t convey how devoid of tension it all is. None of it matters. Every surprise lands with a dull thump. All the danger and backstabbing and mountain-falling are there to trick you into thinking you’re watching a thriller, which you are not. In fact, you’re watching a travel documentary starring Cocaine. You’re watching an illustrated instruction manual on how drugs reach our streets. And no amount of Nic Cage parading around in some ugly glasses is going to change that.
But once you realize what it is you are watching, it’s sort of impressive. Not in an enjoyable way, but as an experiment I can sort of respect it. It was written and directed by Jason Cabell, a man who may not have a ton of experience behind the camera but who has 20-odd years of experience as a Navy SEAL and military advisor on Colombia’s drug trade. The gimmick of telling a drug kingpin story from the point of view of the drugs is novel, and I could see how that could be used to show the way average people get sucked into the business side of it. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens here. These characters aren’t average, they’re un-developed. There’s no weight to their decisions, and no conflict in their actions. And the problem with expressionless bricks of powder is that it’s hard to get emotionally invested in their trials and tribulations. The result is a misfire, but at least it’s a rather convincing one.
I mean, it’s still way better than Speed Kills.
Running with the Devil is available in theaters an On Demand/Digital on September 20, 2019.
Header Image Source: Quiver Distribution