The scourge of opioid addiction has touched countless lives. Crisis focuses on three of them.
For years, college professor Tyrone Bower has helped a huge pharmaceutical company bring its products to market. He tests its drugs, endorses the results and takes the cash—all for his research lab, of course. But as the company tries to hone its breakthrough opioid drug Klaralon—touted as “non-addictive” and set to hit the market in six months—Tyrone’s team finds some disturbing discrepancies.
Oh, both standard Klaralon and its newest iteration seemed to work as advertised on the lab mice … for the first seven days. But stretch the test out to 10? The mice all turn into furry junkies, slurping up the stuff until they die.
Clearly, Klaralon has some issues, and Tyrone needs to say so. But how will the company—which has sunk billions into this revolutionary “non-addictive” painkiller—react when it learns that its newest magic bullet is actually three times as addictive as anything else on the market?
(Spoiler warning: Not good.)
Meanwhile, Claire Reimann seems to have successfully overcome her own opioid addiction. But when her son dies as the result of an overdose, the grieving mom can’t believe that her kid was an addict, too. Soon she discovers that her son didn’t accidentally overdose but was murdered—and that he might’ve been an unwitting accomplice in a Canadian-based drug smuggling ring. Perhaps he was killed because someone thought he knew too much, even though the kid knew nothing at all.
But whatever her son was involved with, Claire knows she can’t let his death go unavenged. She’ll make his killers pay, whatever the cost.
And so we come to Jake Kelly, an undercover cop for the Drug Enforcement Agency masquerading as an opioid smuggler. Shuttling between Detroit and Montreal, Jake’s the spider working to spin a massive web between Canadian Fentanyl manufacturers and Albanian gangsters as well as his own in-the-know DEA coworkers. He hopes that web will eventually snare the bad guys, shelve the Fentanyl and save a few people from addiction.
He’s seen, after all, what addiction can do. And if he ever forgets, all Jake has to do is look at his sister: her glassy eyes, her track marks, her disdain for everything but the next hit.
These three people have been touched by the opioid epidemic in very different ways. But one thing they share: a desire to do something about it.
“This is the biggest health crisis since tobacco!” Tyrone says of the opioid epidemic. His listener is skeptical. But the movie would agree—and it offers plenty of evidence, too.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 450,000 people died of opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2018, and those rates just keep rising. Crisis is all about forcing viewers to grapple with that reality. And however ham-fistedly it goes about the task, we can’t quibble with the narrative’s underlying goal.
This story’s main characters are determined to confront that crisis in their own ways: Tyrone becomes a whistle-blower who tries to draw attention to the dangers of Klaralon, despite the personal and professional risks he faces. Jake risks his very life to take down the makers and distributors of a lethal street drug. And Claire—well, we can certainly quibble with the methods she’s willing to go to in order to exact justice for her boy’s death. But few moms could fault the love behind it.
As Tyrone’s efforts to block Klaralon’s roll to the marketplace, the drug’s makers dredge up old scandals to tarnish the guy’s reputation. Included in that: an old sexual harassment case brought by one of Tyrone’s students. The case was overblown, Tyrone insists, and ultimately dismissed. But he also admits that he was at fault for having asked the student out when he shouldn’t have.
A couple of women dance and snuggle together at a nightclub.
A man is shot in the neck and dies, blood pouring both from the wound and burbling up from the man’s mouth. Another guy is shot in the forehead: We see the wound and the blood pool around the body after he hits the ground. Several others are shot and killed (but audiences see much less blood). Someone survives a bullet wound to the arm, though the victim is clearly in pain in the aftermath.
A man lies dead in a bathroom, his bald head surrounded by blood. The corpse of Claire’s son makes several appearances: We see, after the teen’s scalp was shaved, some bruising on his head, indicating foul play. We hear details on how the kid died. A couple of other teens wind up dead, too, and we see some post-mortem pictures of one of them.
People are threatened with guns. A woman thrashes and fights as she’s removed from a drug den. A drug courier falls and nearly careens off a cliff. We see some dead mice.
About 45 uses of the f-word and two of the s-word. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “d–n,” “h—” and “p—y.” God’s name is abused thrice, twice with “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused four times.
A film about drug abuse and addiction will certainly contain some drug content. We see Fentanyl made, shipped and schlepped about (at one point, the green pills spill across some white snow), and lots of addicts use it and other substances. One woman liquifies and injects drugs into her system. Loads of people live together in an abandoned house, all of them clearly under the influence of something and almost oblivious to the real world around them. We also see the difficulties of getting people off opioids: Jake literally ties her sister up (she wants to run back to her drug den) and tells her mother to leave her like that for two days. “Be strong,” he says. In a drug rehab clinic, Jake’s sister makes it abundantly clear that she doesn’t want to get clean.
Tyrone’s research mice apparently show signs of addiction by the eighth day of the study—ignoring everything else and consuming more and more of the opioid until they simply die. (One mouse, still alive, ravenously sucks on the drug dispensation system.)
Early in the movie, Claire attends an addict support group, where she tells other participants that Oxycontin was her drug of choice. “I would like to be a better person for [my son], and I’m working on it every day,” she says. After her son dies, though, Claire is tempted to relapse: She procures some pills and seems ready to take them before she dumps them down the sink instead.
Jake describes his sting operation to his DEA superior, a strategy that includes asking homeless people going into shady clinics to snag opioid prescriptions. (One doctor looks at an X-ray of a dog, announces the patient is in pain and quickly makes out a prescription for the animal’s very human owner.) Teens and young adults party at an underground club, and many seem impaired. A man snorts an unknown drug while riding in a vehicle.
A drug lord owns a bar, and several scenes take place inside. Jake drinks both beer and whiskey, and at one point appears to pretend he’s inebriated. At least one character smokes cigarettes.
Claire seems ready to kill to avenge her son—going so far as to purchase an under-the-counter and theoretically untraceable gun. “Just what are you planning to do, exactly?” the seller asks, which just might qualify as the most unnecessary question in recent cinematic history.
[Spoiler Warning] Claire uses said gun, but Jake sees (and participates in) the ensuing shootout. In the aftermath, he sets up the crime scene to make it look as if the two bad guys had attacked each other, and he whisks Claire to safety. It’s an emotionally satisfying but ethically uncertain capper.
If Indiana Jones was somehow flicking his whip in the early 21st Century, he might well turn to a geriatric Sulla and say, “Big Pharma. I hate those guys.”
Pharmaceutical companies have indeed become wildly popular cinematic evildoers—and with some justification. From the cartoonish villainy of Martin “Pharma Bro” Shkreli to the devastating impact that opioid addiction has had on our country (duly and repeatedly emphasized in Crisis), the pharmaceutical industry has much to answer for.
The film also gives a slightly more nuanced view of the industry, too. Altruism mingles with profits, and it’s clear that most legitimate pharma representatives would like to make the world a better place and get rich, too. Alas, if they’re forced to choose one or the other, Crisis’ villains will line their pockets every time.
The movie’s makers wouldn’t mind making a few bucks from this clunky, preachy and wholly unnecessary movie, either. Featuring a squad of big-name actors and powered by its timely issues, Crisis still fails as both message and movie. It feels like someone wanted to combine two or three different screenplays (and maybe a few short stories besides) into a functional movie, and it just doesn’t work.
If you tossed aside all of this movie’s f-words, Crisis’ cautionary message could have cruised into PG-13 territory. That would’ve given us the ability to say that, while a failure, at least it was a relatively restrained failure—and one trying to make some important points at that.
Alas, those 45 f-bombs keep us from giving even that mild bit of praise.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.