Well, let’s get it out of the way: Armie Hammer. The actor’s career freefall — driven on social media by cannibal kink fascination, but underscored by concerning allegations of non-consensual sex, coercion, and abuse — has likely given “Crisis” (a more apt movie title couldn’t be possible) more interest than the throwaway crime drama would’ve otherwise received. But in the event, you’re one of the few wringing your hands over the film and how to separate the art from the artist, don’t bother. The film is bad, Hammer’s performance is forgettable, and there isn’t any kind of reading you can apply to the material that will shed anything close to a meaningful revelation about the actor or the scandal that’s embroiled him. The most “Crisis” will give you is the empty gift of occupying two, completely uneventful hours of your life.
Following the very totally adequate hedge fund drama “Arbitrage,” writer/director Nicholas Jarecki turns his attention to the opioid crisis for his sophomore feature with far lesser results. Undeniably inspired by the sweeping sprawl of Steven Soderbergh’s drug epic “Traffic,” Jarecki similarly unfurls a handful of storylines that will inevitably and very predictably connect. Leading the pack is Hammer, playing a determined DEA agent running a high-risk, undercover operation to bring down top-level French-Canadian and Armenian pill pushers in one fell swoop. Sharing star billing (and an executive producer credit) is Gary Oldman, going full Earnest Nerd Mode, as a university professor who discovers that a big pharma company’s claims that their latest opioid is non-addictive are bunk. Meanwhile, Evangeline Lilly plays a mother who, devastated by her teenage son’s shocking drug overdose death, goes on a quest to discover the truth about what happened to him. If that already sounds like a lot of plot for a two-hour running time, you’re absolutely right, and it quickly becomes evident that Jarecki is in over his head by how little screen time the starry supporting cast is afforded. Luke Evans (slimy pharma exec), Michelle Rodriguez (Hammer’s boss), Lily-Rose Depp (Hammer’s drug-addicted sister and hackneyed plot device to give his character Purpose), and Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi (wildly miscast as an FDA agent) pop up when needed to move things along, but do little to add to the threadbare fabric of the film.
What made “Traffic” so effective beyond Soderbergh’s efficiencies as a storyteller, was the drama’s willingness to explore the inherent complexities and hypocrisies of the war on drugs. Working from his own script, Jarecki is largely disinterested in wading into gray areas, drawing distinct moral boundaries for his characters to operate within. Thus, it makes it all the more jarring and incredulous in the rare moments they step beyond precise distinctions of good and bad, and the writing is never strong enough to support those choices. “The Insider,” another film that echoes throughout “Crisis,” had a compelling whistleblower in Jeffrey Wigand, who was confounding, combative, and paid heavy consequences by coming forward. By contrast, Jarecki has Oldman’s Dr. Tyrone Brower literally Google the FDA website and click around to the whistleblowing section; his conscience and determination to expose the evil pharma company are never really in doubt, nor is the support of his wife. That scene is largely indicative of “Crisis” as a whole — a drama with a righteous and admirable agenda, that goes about it in the most lead-footed way possible.
The inelegance of the film carries over to its technical side as well. Set in Detroit and Montreal, cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc does little to distinguish either city, which is quite a feat considering you would have to go out of your way to render them indistinct. The grey-ish, mid-winter weather doesn’t help matters, adding a further smudge to the already flat palette. Even the attempt to shoot anamorphic can’t save a look and feel that has more affinity with a network TV Movie of The Week from a couple of decades ago. Some action sequences offer an opportunity to bring some life to the plodding narrative. Still, it’s an area that’s clearly out of Jarecki’s depth, as they’re blandly or confusingly staged, and executed without any tension. Even Raphael Reed’s score is anonymous, a final nameless ingredient in a movie that can never find a personality.
The cast themselves seem to know they’re in a lost cause, with Oldman, the only actor who attempts to build something out of so little on the page, giving it his all, particularly in a couple of loud, reedy, statement-of-intent proclamations. Hammer, who is usually best at roles that subvert or riff on his WASP-y persona, similarly puts forth an effort but to little effect, as the shapelessly written part could’ve been filled by any other square-jawed actor. With the rest of the ensemble going through the motions, “Crisis” can never muster the urgency and energy required of its namesake. [D]