Film Review: ‘Prescription Thugs’

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Chris Bell's follow-up to 'Bigger, Stronger, Faster*' is engaging and enraging but also, alas, consistently superficial.

Having wrestled with steroids in his 2008 documentary “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*,” Chris Bell expands his purview to tackle America’s legal-drug industry — and the addictions it spawns — with “Prescription Thugs.” Again aping the nonfiction form that made Michael Moore a star, Bell puts himself, and his family, front and center throughout the course of his critique of a business that nets tens of billions a year, and which he believes has fostered a culture in thrall to quick-fix narcotics solutions to life’s every problem. Engaging and enraging but also, alas, consistently superficial, it’s a hot-button work whose easily digested nonfiction methods will appeal to mainstream documentary audiences, even if they also leave viewers hungry for greater substance.

As with his prior film, Bell — delivering hey-I’m-a-regular-guy narration — begins his inquiry by fixating his gaze on his siblings, with particular attention paid to Mike “Mad Dog” Bell, who dreamed of becoming a WWE star but, after a career as a “jobber” (i.e., the anonymous loser that marquee stars beat to a pulp), became despondent and turned to prescription meds as a way to ease his pain. That habit resulted in his untimely death in 2008 at the age of 37, a loss that compelled director Bell, himself hooked on similar meds thanks to hip surgery, to look into the over-the-counter craze consuming the country.

This first leads him to WWE alums Ryan Sakoda (who was once found floating in a swimming pool thanks to an OD) and Matt “Horshu” Wiese (who at his peak consumed 90 pills a day), as well as UFC star Chris Leben (who had a chart detailing his daily consumption). In their horror stories, all of them reminiscent of “Mad Dog’s”, “Prescription Thugs” illustrates how doctor-approved meds — Oxycontin, Ritalin, Prozac, Viagra, Lunesta, etc. — have become ingrained in athletic, and daily, life. Moreover, it shows how these pills’ close chemical relationship to heroin and crystal meth makes them at least as dangerous as those illegal drugs. Especially considering Bell’s own family ties to the wrestling world, these speakers’ anecdotes lend the material an additional dose of unvarnished intimacy and power.

Not content to simply focus on relatives, friends and associates, however, Bell promptly segues into an overarching condemnation of the profit-driven practices of the pharmaceutical industry, which spends millions on consumer advertising and on lobbying politicians. This is all decried by both Bell and his variety of talking heads, including authors, politicians, and other experts. Yet almost as soon as “Prescription Thugs” goes after Big Pharma, it becomes a monotonous and unenlightening agitprop effort, rife with revelations about corporate behavior — they want to maximize revenue by creating maladies they can medicate! They develop drugs whose side effects need to be treated with more drugs! — that are anything but revelatory.

When Bell asks Cliffside Malibu rehab clinic director Richard Taite why no one stops Big Pharma from doing as it pleases, and he responds with “I don’t want to answer that, you know the answer to that, everybody who’s watching this knows the answer to that,” he gives voice to the primary problem underlying “Prescription Thugs”: It only has obvious things to say about its topic. To compensate for its dearth of bombshells or adequate solutions to the dilemmas it addresses, Bell piles on the aesthetic gimmickry, with an endless barrage of TV news footage, Reagan-era “Just Say No” PSAs, archival movie and TV clips (including from “Jaws” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”), family photos and computer graphics gussying up what amounts to a one-note cinematic warning about the hazards of popping too many pills. It’s a barrage of sound and fury that quickly makes one crave some aspirin.

A late attempt to transition into an even wider discussion about America’s culture of addiction, and about why people look for medicinal solutions to emotional, psychological and physical problems, proves similarly shallow. A climactic disclosure from Bell marks a promising return to more personal filmmaking; too bad, then, that, like the rest of the material, it’s treated not as a jumping-off point for a more in-depth investigation, but rather as just another of his doc’s many cursory, soundbite-friendly details.

Film Review: 'Prescription Thugs'

Reviewed online, Stamford, Conn., Jan. 19, 2016. (In 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.) Running time: 86 MIN.


(Documentary) A Samuel Goldwyn Films release of a The Blaze Documentary Films, Wild West Films, Go Go Luckey! Entertainment and Naked Edge Films production. Produced by Daniel J. Chalfen, Chris Bell, G.B. Young. Executive producers, Vince Vaughn, Peter Billingsley, Joel Cheatwood. Co-producers, John Isbell, Micah Mason.


Directed by Chris Bell. Co-directors, Josh Alexander, G.B. Young. Written by Alexander. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), G.B. Young; editor, G.B. Young; music, Joel Goodman; music supervisor, Jonathan Finegold; art director, G.B. Young; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital); re-recording mixer, Tom Paul; effects editor, Chris Davis; line producer, Nicholas Ward; associate producers, Joe Heslinga, Kat Hess, Michelle Nasert, Nicholas Ward; researcher, Susan Ricketts.


Mark Bell, Mike Bell, Rosemary Bell, Greg Critser, Betsy Degree, David Healey, Chris Leben, Ted Lieu, J McCombs, Gwen Olsen, Dusty Ray, Ryan Sakoda, Richard Taite, Kayhryn Taylor, Matt  “Horshu” Wiese.

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  1. This prescription drug epidemic in America is a complex issue that can’t be simplified by blaming the FDA and big pharmaceutical companies for manufacturing the drugs. Cigarettes are legal and cause more deaths than street drugs. It’s up to the individual to not smoke. The real problem is within the nature of people. Too many like to take the easy way out by swallowing a pill or drinking a beer. Just because drugs are available, doesn’t mean that you have to take them. Stop blaming the FDA and the pharmaceutical companies for a social issue that lies within human nature. People and their desire escape or take the easy way out is the problem and not the pharmaceutical companies or the FDA.

  2. Paul Pearson says:

    The reality of the matter is that the fda is staffed with doctors and pharmacuetical chemists who cannot work in other fields if they burn the people that pay them those people take carribean vacations and receive payments from those drug companies out of country to avoid prosecution we really do need opiates and benzos in some situations but they have excluded long term medications for the sake of billions in profits i nearly died myself and the fda claimed that the drug keeping me alive now was not certainly safer even though it was tested on over a million people the drug i take is what heath ledgers family made legal after he died. I take it for a genetic disorder.

  3. Joe dirte says:

    I disagree with almost everything in this article, i also appreciated the old clips

  4. Pam McHugh says:

    the documentary brought to light that maybe some people have been misdiagnosed with a mental illness and the medication used to help them may indeed cause suicide – almost all medication for depression including bipolar have the warning – can increase the risk of suicide

  5. Christine says:

    This is good and all for opiate addiction. However, how dare people without mental illness shun psychiatric drugs. This ” documentary ” only encourages the stigma against mental illness. There is no price I wouldn’t pay to be relieved from the darkness I lived. Thank you Effexor, Wellbutrin, and trazodone. I think this film is quite biased. Some people are alive and thriving because of pharmaceuticals, such as I.

  6. Scott michaels says:

    This is terrible! Another group blaming the drugs and not the people. Addiction is a desease, allergy whatever. We are now pandering to the junkies and drug abusers. Because these people CHOSE to get loaded with their medications instead of taking them as directed and then wheaning down. These people CHOSE use their medications as a source of euphoria and it got out of control. When will the truly sad story be told?
    100 million people in America suffer from chronic pain. Most go un or under treated because of storied like this. WE HAVE WOUNDED WARRIORS, ELDERLY, PEOPLE WITH SPINAL CONDITIONS AND DOZENS OF OTHER CONDITIONS THAT WITHOUT OPIOID THERAPY, MANY WOULD KILL THEMSELVES OR TURN TO STREET DRUGS. Today 20 million people take their opioid pain relievers as directed. Because of rehab houses looking for more money, people like this looking for a buck or fame, millions are being told that they vant have pain medication anymore. many people take 3 to 4 oxycontin a day us morphene for breakthru pain. They are not the least bit high. they drive, go to work, spend quality time with their family.
    Without the medication they are back in bed with excruciating pain. Unable to dress or feed themselves. Who amongst you HAS THE BALLS to tell the truly sad story. The story that we are now ignoring the VET that lost a limb and half his skull to serve this country. Sorry you must live with your pain. The same thing for a truck driver that has degenerative disc desease and his nerves are squased by arthritis, sorry you have to luve with your pain.
    The heroin problem is bad now, ot will get worse. The dea already has a data base set up so people cant get multiple prescriptions. Pill mills are all but gone. Since heroin is more pure then ever and cheaper then a pack of cigerettes, junkirs dont even want pain relievers anymore. They are too difficult to get and too risky. With that said, Lets stop hurting the people that built this country, that worked 50 hour weeks only to live their latter years in extreme pain. Stop coddling the drug addicts and junkies

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