Armie Hammer's crime drama Crisis explores opioid epidemic

Crisis (MA, 119 minutes)

Three stars

Steven Soderbergh won the best director Oscar in 2001 for his hard-hitting drama Traffic, a sprawling saga weaving together multiple storylines exploring different battlefronts in America's unwinnable war on drugs.

Mexican cartels and cocaine were the enemy then, and Soderbergh's robust hand-held storytelling style gave his grim but gripping film a documentary-like urgency despite a big cast and vast canvas.

Two decades on, writer-director-producer Nicholas Jarecki does his own Traffic but tackling the drug scourge of today: opioids.

Like so many worthy issues, the epidemic of painkiller addiction in the US has been overshadowed by the rolling catastrophes of the coronavirus pandemic.

Michelle Rodriguez and Armie Hammer in Crisis. Picture: Universal Pictures

Michelle Rodriguez and Armie Hammer in Crisis. Picture: Universal Pictures

A noble attempt to explore the political, professional and personal toll of this forgotten emergency, Crisis has a lot of things to say and a lot of visual and emotional material to say it with. And yet the parallel narratives Jarecki strives to thread together, Traffic-style, never really weave a wholly compelling crime drama.

Gary Oldman, Armie Hammer and Evangeline Lilly lead the ambitious triptych of plotlines with strong performances.

Oldman (2018 best actor Oscar winner for Darkest Hour) plays a university professor confronting Big Pharma with lab test results that threaten a multi-billion-dollar payday for a hyped new miracle pain medication.

Hammer (star of The Social Network, The Man From UNCLE and Call Me by Your Name) is an undercover DEA operative setting an elaborate sting to bust a criminal syndicate trafficking knock-off fentanyl pills across the Canadian border.

Lilly (from TV's Lost, Peter Jackson's The Hobbit and Marvel's Ant-Man and The Wasp) plays a single mum whose battle with painkiller addiction comes back to haunt her as she tracks the drug dealers who tangled her teenage son in their deadly trade.

From corruption and hypocrisy at the big end of town to the dangers faced by law enforcement to the awful human cost on the street, Crisis teases out the futility.

Jarecki, who also plays Hammer's DEA partner, made his writer-director debut with the 2012 Richard Gere high finance crime drama Arbitrage. He's clearly done his true-crime homework again here. The methods of narcotics agents, the collision of science and profit motives inside pharmaceutical companies and the ruthless greed of illicit pill pedlars are all rendered with ripped-from-the-headlines authenticity.

Well intentioned and well researched, Crisis delivers some sobering moments of heartbreak and horror. But the core human drama feels diluted as we switch between competing narratives - from bloody gun battles, to tragic overdoses to boardroom dissertations on corporate ethics.

The three plots feel undercooked, robbing each of depth and impact and sapping the film's momentum and urgency. As a result, supporting players Greg Kinnear, Michelle Rodriguez and Lily-Rose Depp get little time to flesh out potentially intriguing characters.

Maybe what Crisis deserved is the miniseries format that originally inspired Soderberg's Traffic. The Big Pharma plot, for example, has resonance in light of the accelerated development and production of the COVID-19 vaccine. Hammer's DEA hero has a desperate junkie sister (Depp) but this gets only a couple of heart-rending scenes.

In our new age of quality long-form TV, there's a meaty, meaningful, modern morality play here screaming out to be streaming.

This story Opioid crisis gets its own Traffic first appeared on The Canberra Times.