There are few problems in society that stoke the fires of havoc and cognitive dissonance like the War on Drugs. Substance use has been with us since time immemorial and, much like the human appetites for sensory derangement and sensual pleasure have facilitated pubs, off-licences and brothels, it’s a phenomenon that has an axiomatically ingrained need for some kind of market (unless somebody out there has a magic solution to annihilating anyone’s desire for it). Yours truly happens to reside in the camp of folks who believe that the reason drugs cause so much damage in society is precisely because they’re illegal, the manufacturing, distribution and regulation left entirely in the hands of criminal organisations. Sure, it would be nice if we could click our fingers and nobody ever wanted to ingest a bit of gear ever again, but the next best option would be governmental quality control, taxation and some kind of minimum age/prescription basis for use. Beats gang violence and tons of people dying because their shit is cut with rat poison, no?
As is often the case with social problems, it’s also something that has given us an abundance of notable cinema examining the lives of both addicts and those who profit from the trade. Scarface showcased how your riches will inevitably turn back into bloody rags should you ‘get high off your own supply’, and 25 years ago saw the release of the iconic Trainspotting, a singular and seriocomic look at the kind of subculture that is fostered by the othering of drug users and the illegality of their chosen narcotic. At the start of the millennium, Steven Soderbergh released Traffic, a hyperlink crime drama based on a 1989 British miniseries that examined drug trafficking from the perspectives of addicts, government employees and the dealers themselves. It broke a lot of ground in bringing such a comprehensive examination into the mainstream, an adult approach with thoughtfulness and no simple answers that has been taken to its apex conclusion in masterworks like HBO’s The Wire. Crisis, the sophomore effort from Nicholas Jarecki, makes a similar attempt at some nail-biting food-for-thought with interlocking stories about the US opioid epidemic and its effects on people from all walks but, despite some promise, it gets thoroughly jumbled and outright silly.
As the film opens, a young drug smuggler is apprehended at the US-Canada border by the RCMP, an event that draws the ire of Armen (Adam Tsekhman) and Minas (Michael Aronov), two Armenian drug lords operating in Detroit, Michigan. These two happen to be pawns in a wide-scale undercover detail engineered by DEA agent Jake Kelly (Armie Hammer). Agent Kelly, whose younger sister is currently in rehab detoxing a severe opioid dependency, has fiercely committed himself to the elimination of several cartels at once via a sting that involves the smuggling of Fentanyl, a widely used analgesic that is popularly mixed with street drugs. With his major supplier being the brutal French-Canadian crime boss Mother (Guy Nadon), Kelly must juggle the stresses of looking after his kid sister with the revelation that Mother suspects a police mole among his associates, and if he doesn’t act fast, it could mean a bullet in the head.
Amid these tense shenanigans, we are introduced to Claire Reimann (Evangeline Lilly). An architect who attends mutual aid meetings to help with her overwhelming recovery from an OxyContin addiction, Claire dotes on her teenage son David (Billy Bryk), a promising hockey player and all-around nice kid. When David doesn’t come home on time one evening, Claire is unexpectedly and tragically thrust back into the underworld of drugs, a place that it took her a mountain of courage to abandon. Ever on the precipice of relapsing, Claire becomes privy to David’s involvement in a trafficking conspiracy that leads back to the aforementioned Mother, her determination to seek truth and justice putting her well out of her depth with some thoroughly nefarious buggers.
The third strand in the tale revolves around Dr. Tyrone Brower (Gary Oldman). An esteemed university professor employed to conduct research by pharmaceutical giant Northlight, Dr. Brower is deeply concerned when it transpires that the company’s prospective new ”non-addictive” painkiller, Klaralon, would actually prove to be one of the most addictive opioids on the market. Desperate to discourage Northlight from seeking FDA approval, Brower finds himself badgered to sign more expansive confidentiality agreements, bribed and subsequently becomes the victim of a smear campaign, Big Pharma determined to protect its interests at all costs. Will he ultimately prove to be a man of principle or price?
Crisis is definitely not without its advantageous elements. With Nicolas Bolduc’s crisp cinematographic polish and Raphael Reed’s adequate score, the film looks and sounds satisfying, and the performances of Hammer, Lily and Oldman are all terrific. Every player lives and breathes their respective quests for justice in a sordid and morally bankrupt milieu, Lilly being a standout in her painfully authentic depiction of a parent who will stop at nothing to rectify harm upon her family. Trouble is, everything around the three principals is flat, unimaginative and, frankly, quite embarrassing.
As powerful and commendable as Oldman’s work as the righteous Dr. Brower is, his plight felt like little more than a bland, terribly written version of the Michael Mann masterpiece The Insider. The Northlight head honchos that he battles are slick caricatures with absolutely rubbish dialogue that bleeds with obviousness, a world away from Michael Gambon’s deliciously intimidating turn as Brown & Williamson CEO Thomas Sandefur. I’m convinced that the creators of Crisis took this specific inspiration and, in the process, they have sucked out all of the naturalism, nuance, intrigue, suspense and heart that makes Mann’s film the intelligent and unforgettable docudrama that it is. Brower is actually a great Oldman character, he just desperately requires a better story to occupy.
Lilly’s narrative teases at a stark and sombre portrait of shocking mysteries and downward spirals, but instead elects to degenerate into a contrived revenge piece. A seriously lamentable fact, given that you only need to survey the way she carries events to realise how much talent the film is wasting. This risible downturn into by-the-numbers action thriller territory is worsened by Hammer’s arc. The potential for a complex and poignant spotlight on his sibling’s addiction is scuppered in favour of rote cop-film developments, losing even more forgivability points thanks to the characterisation of the film’s villains. Do you enjoy national stereotypes that reach the levels of offensive absurdity seen in Taken? If so, you needn’t look any further than Crisis‘s crude offerings of swarthy and sinister Armenians who don’t utter many sentences beyond threats or overweight, scuzzy-looking Quebecois with a penchant for booze and dreadful diets.
Unlike Traffic, the way the journeys intertwine here never feels immersive or believable. Jarecki offered a mature and interesting thriller with his 2012 debut Arbitrage, a work that fleshed out its focal character and possessed substantive social commentary and authentic tension. Quite puzzling, then, that Crisis‘s three great leads have to contend with thin and predictable writing and patchy supporting acting in a film that ultimately says nothing useful about anything, despite the gravity of the subject matter. Just go and watch any of the other works mentioned instead (except Taken, once was enough with that shite).