Netflix takes on the infamous Medellín drug cartel in Narcos, a big, meaty, explosive crime drama that charts the rise and fall of notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar and the DEA agents tasked with bringing him down.
Like Martin Scorsese’s breathless masterpiece Goodfellas, which is an indelible influence throughout, the series takes the true-life story of a brutal, bloody conflict between rapidly expanding cartels and the law enforcement officers attempting to stem the tide, and transforms it into a magnificent examination of greed, corruption and the American Dream.
Though events often seem too strange to be true, Narcos, shot through with a verve and stylish intensity from Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha, proves reality really can be far more gripping than fiction.
The story is primarily told from the viewpoints of Wagner Moura’s Escobar, who rises from peddling stolen car stereos across the border to controlling the richest drugs empire the world has ever known, and honourable DEA agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook).
Yet the tale is not as simple as two men entwined to drag each other down in oblivion, at least not in the first episode. There’s a sprawling ambition to Narcos’ scope as it follows the drug battle from its very beginnings, when the biggest offenders were “hippies in flip-flops” caught carrying a kilo of marijuana, to the point where cartel members and US drug agents are engaging in violent shootouts on Miami streets, a struggle that envelopes everyone from the penniless pregnant women Escobar used as drug mules all the way up to US President Ronald Regan.
With its gaudy depiction of excess (stacks of illicit cash, sweaty nightclubs, eye-gauging fashion choices), Narcos is clearly aiming to expose how greed, ego and corruption will invariably conspire against those who seek to embrace it.
Escobar’s early partner, the aptly named Cockroach, is the first to pay the price, having attempted to cheat his associate out of the business, he winds up abandoned in the desert with a bullet in his head, while Escobar himself is surely playing with fire by inviting his notoriously trigger-happy peers to join his nascent venture.
Writer Chris Brancato also makes it abundantly clear that the ‘good guys’ will not be left unscathed by this dark business as Murphy is repeatedly seen to be unsettled by the escalating violence of the criminals he hunts and Colombian officers are subjected to chilling threats against their families. With the first episode littered with allusions to good men breaking bad, don’t be surprised if more than a few of our heroes are destroyed by the maelstrom by the time the series’ 10-part run concludes.
Brancato is determined to steer as close to the truth as he possibly can, meaning we’re often bombarded by facts detailing the production of cocaine and the sheer numbers involved in such a business. Yet the drama never feels like it’s becoming a history lesson, partly because the exposition is entertainingly delivered in Holbrook’s lazy drawl, but mostly due to the pulsating rhythm of Padilha’s direction.
Padilha delights in the technical possibilities of filmmaking. There are freeze frames, fast cuts, montages and the occasional long tracking shot, all vibrating with an outlaw energy that keeps the dense plot on its toes as it barrels along in absorbing fashion.
Attention must also be drawn to the performances, all of which are first rate. The series is beautifully cast with Moura’s dedication to the role of Escobar – he gained 40 pounds and learned Spanish to play the part – paying off with a charming, intense and utterly beguiling performance, while Holbrook also impresses as Murphy, a down-to-earth, patriotic agent who struggles to cope with being thrown onto the front lines of a war he didn’t even know had begun.
If there is to be one complaint after the first episode it’s that the sprawling story lacks a focal point, meaning, beyond the two leads, the rest of the cast fail to register.
Even then, there are already signs of improvement as the episode closes with Escobar placing a bounty on the head of a circling Murphy, suggesting subsequent episodes will focus more on how these two characters, and the people closest to them, are affected by the growing conflict.
Otherwise, Narcos is a triumph of a series, combining perfect editing, camerawork and cast into a virtuoso spectacle that can genuinely stand toe-to-toe with The Godfather and Goodfellas as one of the greatest gangster stories ever told.
Click here to watch a trailer for Narcos