FILM REVIEW – RUNNING WITH THE DEVIL. With Nicolas Cage, Laurence Fishburne, Leslie Bibb, Adam Goldberg, Barry Pepper. Written and directed by Jason Cabell. Rated R for violence and disturbing images, drug use, strong sexual content and language. 100 minutes.
It’s not often you get to watch an actor out-hambone Nicolas Cage, but writer-director Jason Cabell’s RUNNING WITH THE DEVIL allows a deliriously twitchy Laurence Fishburne to go way over the top as a double-dealing wannabe drug kingpin with a sweaty, full-tilt brio that recalls his swaggering breakthrough performance in Abel Ferrara’s “King of New York.” Cutting his cartel stash to side-hustle a toxic cocktail of cocaine, fentanyl and heroin, this perpetually gacked, hooker-happy horndog is always trying to stay one step ahead of his employers, the feds and his ex-wife’s child support lawyers. As long as the movie sticks with Fishburne it’s a blast.
Unfortunately, Cabell has bigger ambitions. “Running With The Devil” aims to be a sweeping epic covering all facets and fallout of the cocaine trade, rather unconvincingly depicting interactions with peasants, police and politicians. When a Canadian druglord (played as a corporate shark in a suit by the always amusing Barry Pepper) discovers that his shipments are being tampered with, he calls an old partner out of semi-retirement to track and test the packages at every stop along the way from Colombia to Vancouver.
That partner happens to be a taciturn pizza chef played by Nicolas Cage with splendid sideburns and 1970s sitcom dad glasses, and a good chunk of the movie’s running time is given over to him threateningly inspecting bags of blow in various locales. There’s a pretty good joke in the disconnect between Cage’s doofus demeanor and his lethal reflexes, but it’s not enough to carry off the dry procedural nature of these sequences. Besides, we already know that the coke is being cut in Seattle and everything’s more interesting there.
Fishburne ropes a dumbbell buddy (an agreeably against-type Adam Goldberg) into his scheme, arousing the attention of a possibly psychotic DEA agent (Leslie Bibb) who just lost her sister to an overdose. Yes, this time it’s personal. I’m not sure if Bibb’s flat, laissez-faire line readings are a deliberate stylistic choice or just ordinary incompetence, but either way the performance brings a refreshingly counter-intuitive approach to police brutality.
“Running With The Devil” tries some narrative trickery and fake-out twists in its later reels, to ends more frustrating than entertaining. The further it gets away from Fishburne’s manic energy on the grungy Seattle streets the more rote the picture becomes. Meanwhile, as the merchandise slowly makes its way north you can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a more efficient way to traffic this stuff. (Maybe this is why we haven’t heard of too many Canuck drug lords?)
Cabell’s onscreen title cards announcing the increasing price of the product along its journey might leave you doing the math in your head, wondering what exactly the margins are on such an expensive operation. (Fishburne was in “The Mule.” Doesn’t he know you can just hire Clint Eastwood to drive your dope around?) Any credibility is off the cliff for good when the delivery hinges upon sending two out-of-shape guys in their 50s on a dangerous mountaineering trek through the snow. Distribution plans like this could single-handedly solve the drug problem.•••
Over the past 20 years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.