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‘Crisis’: Multilayered drug thriller overdoses on big moments

The film juggles three main stories and more minor ones, and several end up going over the top.

An architect (Evangeline Lilly) avenging the death of her teenage son is one of the many drug-related plot lines in “Crisis.”
Quiver Distribution

Watching the multilayered, drug epidemic thriller “Crisis,” one can’t help but be reminded of Steven Soderbergh’s acclaimed classic “Traffic” from 2000, and wow, can it really be two decades since Soderbergh’s groundbreaking, Academy Award-winning direction set the modern standard from sprawling crime epics?

Like “Traffic,” writer-producer-director Nicholas Jarecki’s stylish and occasionally moving but often unsubtle work toggles between three distinct storylines (and a few subplots), many of which will eventually interconnect. It’s an ambitious reach, and the talented cast of mostly familiar names is game for the challenge, but “Crisis” goes over the top with too many key plot developments. The end result is a serious case of Messaging Exhaustion.

One of the central plots in “Traffic” had Michael Douglas as a conservative judge who has been appointed to head the president’s Office of National Drug Control Policy — even as his teenage daughter (Erika Christensen) is hooked on hard drugs. In “Crisis,” it’s Armie Hammer’s Detroit-based undercover DEA agent Jake Kelly who is trying to take down a cabal of Armenian gangsters smuggling copious amounts of fentanyl into the United States — while he also tries to save his drug-addicted little sister Emmie (Lily-Rose Depp) from overdosing. (Things take a harrowing and controversial turn in a scene in which Jake zip-ties Emmie to her bed and tells their mother to leave her like that for two days.)

As Jake tries to orchestrate the takedown of the Armenian gangsters as well as a Montreal-based oxy kingpin known as “Mother” (Guy Nadon in a quietly menacing performance), two other main storylines kick into gear. Evangeline Lilly gives the most resonant performance in the film as Claire, a recovering oxy addict who has stitched her life together in admirable fashion and is thriving as an architect when the death of her teenage son, apparently of a drug overdose, turns her world upside down.

Meanwhile, on an unnamed private college campus in Michigan, renowned researcher Dr. Tyrone Brower (Gary Oldman) and his team are getting some alarming results in their experiments on a new wonder drug called Klaralon that is supposedly far less addictive than other painkillers and could result in billions of dollars in profits for Big Pharma. Luke Evans shows up as the exec who offers Dr. Brower a grant of nearly $800,000 in exchange for signing an agreement to say nothing about the potentially deadly side effects of Klaralon, and Greg Kinner is the avaricious dean who urges the increasingly conflicted Dr. Brower to take the money and keep his mouth shut.

Stopping the flow of drugs is personal for an undercover DEA agent (Armie Hammer).
Quiver Distribution

There’s a lot of movie in this movie. Oldman eats up the screen while employing what I think is supposed to be a Midwestern accent. Hammer is a solid actor but he looks more like the Lone Ranger than a guy who’s been living the life of a drug dealer on the streets for a year. (The role was filmed before Hammer’s recent social media scandal.) Evangeline Lilly goes all “Death Wish” as the vengeance-seeking mom, and we empathize with her even as her story line goes off the rails. (Hmmm, like Claire, Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey was an architect turned vigilante in the original “Death Wish.”)

And speaking of films from the past: “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” was cranked up for one montage in “Crisis” as Hammer’s Jake explains the corrupt tentacles of the drug-dealing world — but all that did was take me out of the movie and remind me of how masterfully Scorsese used that Stones classic in 1995’s “Casino.” It’s not a good thing when a movie has us thinking about earlier, better movies.