A retired Navy SEAL who for a time was a military advisor on the Colombian drug trade, Jason Cabell conceived his first solo feature as writer-director to tell the story of that particular commerce “from the point of view of the drugs.” The result isn’t exactly a docudrama indictment like “Traffic,” a thriller a la “Sicario,” a plea for innocent victims, or a Tarantino-esque bloody crime comedy. Rather, “Running With the Devil” is all the above, confidently blending together many narrative and tonal elements into a surprisingly cohesive whole.
With a cast of familiar faces toplined by the inescapable Nicolas Cage, this sprawling yet tight tale of rocky illegal transport should impress audiences whether they’re looking for a serious treatment of trafficking issues, or just violent excitement. It will find viewers primarily via home formats, as “Running” bows this weekend on just 10 U.S. screens simultaneous with VOD and digital launch.
After an ominous prologue that we’ll eventually get back to involving the grim fate of a bound, naked man, Cabell’s script begins to introduce his raft of characters some weeks earlier. A little girl who tells her Seattle school bus driver “I can’t wake them up” is deposited into the care of an aunt, her parents having fatally OD’d during the night. That aunt is a federal agent (Leslie Bibb) for whom the war on drugs just got very personal. Meanwhile a high-rolling dealer (Laurence Fishburne) is getting a little too familiar with his own powdery wares, somehow surviving an epic nasal debauch that leaves two less-fortunate prostitutes dead in his bed.
Such bad-for-business mishaps result in a “quality control” expert (Cage) being ordered to leave his respectable Stateside life and attend to administrative issues along the supply chain, all the way down to Bogota. Well outside the capital, the cycle of narco-commerce originates with the low-paid toil of a farmer (Clifton Collins Jr.) and his wife (Natalia Reyes). They harvest coca leaves, do the initial processing and hike each new load of cocaine bricks to the next carrier in a near-endless line of mules. At this start point, the stuff is worth a bit over $1,000 a kilo. Onscreen graphics inform us that by the time it’s made its full journey northward, that value will have increased about thirtyfold.
Less valuable are the many lives judged expendable en route. Given various attempted robberies, police searches, double-crossings, federal investigators interfering with the transit process and other obstacles, this is no doubt an exceptionally corpse-strewn odyssey. But it never seems outlandish or gratuitous in Cabell’s handling — no matter that the settings range from penthouse to strip club to torture chamber, or the means of transport from truck to parachute to snowshoe.
Becoming almost a giant exquisite-corpse story, “Running” nonetheless keeps its cool no matter how arbitrarily extreme the plot twists. There’s a lot of abrupt, intense violence here, yet these drastic reversals of fortune aren’t dwelt on, underlining the fact that such life-taking means very little to those involved —particularly to characters referred to as the Boss (Barry Pepper) or the Executioner (Cole Hauser).
No one here gets a proper name, in fact. What might in other hands have played as a tragedy is lent further emotional distance by the fact that there are almost no innocent victims here. Nearly everyone who suffers a grim fate is already implicated, in one way or another. “Running With the Devil” has little overt moralizing; its biggest takeaway is that the globe-trotting, Rube Goldbergian system it tracks step by step constitutes a big chunk of the global economy, whether we’re willing to admit it or not.
Handing himself an ambitious script with numerous logistical and tonal challenges, Cabell (who co-directed 2016’s “Smoke Filled Lungs”) handles things with considerable panache, delivering a colorful package that nonetheless works hard to avoid being showy or sensational. His cast is admirably poker-faced and droll for the most part, including the more typically gonzo Cage in wry, world-weary mode, and Fishburne in the kind of slave-to-hedonistic-excess role that would normally go to his co-star.
When these two finally get several scenes together, their chemistry mixes well, as do other match-ups along the way. Particularly good are Bibb, as an all-business Fed who turns out to have a seriously caustic side, and Adam Goldberg as a hapless user-turned-snitch. His funny performance is not at all compromised by having to spend considerable time hanging from a chain in bikini briefs.
Duly shot on location (albeit with some fudging, as when New Mexico mountains sub for scenes set on the Canadian border), the Colombia-U.S. production is good-looking and accomplished on all tech and design levels. The only minor misstep is an initial excess of jump cuts in editor Jordan Goldman’s otherwise astute assembly.