Heavy ‘Traffic’: ‘Crisis’ is an earnest, if muddled look at opioid epidemic

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The aptly named “Crisis” might well describe the public relations effort surrounding the early 2021 release. Shot mostly in 2019, the film has the misfortune of debuting in the wake of a scabrous sex scandal surrounding Armie Hammer, one of the movie’s headliners. Without needing to launch into a dissertation about separating art from artist, the truth is “Crisis” is not a great film even absent Hammer’s pall, but it is also a worthwhile one despite it.

Writer-director Nicholas Jarecki (“Arbitrage”) borrows heavily from the “Traffic” template, updating Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-decorated antecedent about the cocaine trade for the opioid era. “Crisis,” too, employs a tri-headed narrative examining the roles of suppliers, law enforcement, and drug victims, with a thin sinew connecting the plotlines (well, at least two of them).

The film opens with a teenage Fentanyl mule getting nabbed at the Canadian border. That segues into undercover DEA agent Jake Kelly (Hammer), who is in the midst of a dangerous, byzantine operation to develop a buy-bust involving Canadian suppliers and Armenian distributors. Kelly also secretly has a close relative (Lily-Rose Depp) who is hooked on drugs (a la Michael Douglas’s drug czar/dad in “Traffic”), a subplot that does not really go anywhere.

The Canadian smuggling scheme, overseen by a vicious kingpin nicknamed Mother (Guy Nadon), intersects with Claire Reimann (Evangeline Lilly), a divorced suburban architect and recovering addict herself. Reimann’s son turns up dead because of an apparent overdose that is soon revealed as a homicide, and Reimann embarks on a single-minded mission to uncover the cause of her son’s death.

The supply side of “Crisis” is not drug farms but rather Big Pharma, shown through the prism of Dr. Tyrone Brower (Gary Oldman), a university researcher working with a multinational pharmaceutical company to develop and bring a new (fictitious) “nonaddictive” painkiller to market. Problems emerge when Brower’s animal experiments show that the new drug might be both addictive and lethal if taken long-term. Brower tries to sound the alarm, which rankles a multinational company already marketing the impending debut of its lucrative wonder drug, and Brower’s university boss, played by Greg Kinnear, who relies on corporate payola to keep the lights on. Brower’s whistleblowing odyssey evokes echoes of Michael Mann’s “The Insider’’ — “This is the biggest public health crisis since tobacco!” Brower bellows, rather on the nose. Indeed, a late scene when Kinnear visits Brower after the latter has leaked the coverup to the newspaper closely mimics a similar sequence between Christopher Plummer and Al Pacino in Mann’s saga.

If any of these disparate storylines sound fertile enough to grow their own film, you would be correct. That is one of the problems with “Crisis,” which oscillates rapidly between its three fronts without allowing sufficient time for any to marinate or fully develop. A victim of ambition, the result is like a series of snapshots comprising a glossy PSA.

Still, Jarecki’s earnestness is undeniable, and the top-shelf, well-chosen cast (yes, even Hammer) is effective when given sufficient space to add layers to their characters. “Crisis” brings to bear the scourge of the opioid epidemic and crystallizes some of its real-world consequences and complexities, particularly the nefarious reach of the corporate leviathan. There are not a lot of compelling thrills in this would-be thriller, but “Crisis” ends up as more than the sum of its parts.



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