Pablo Escobar was one of the most notorious crime lords in history. From the mid 1970s to his death in 1993, Escobar ruled a criminal empire built on violence, extortion, fear and most importantly cocaine, eventually becoming responsible for supplying an estimated 80% of the cocaine smuggled into the United States, allowing him to amass a fortune of an estimated $30 billion, making him one of the ten richest men in the world by the early 1990s.
The Netflix original series Narcos, tells the story of how Escobar founded and ran his lucrative drug empire, rising from humble criminal to drugs kingpin, often showing that in the case of Escobar, the fact is just often stranger than fiction.
Set in Colombia over the period of the mid-1970s up until the early 1990s, the series follows the efforts of agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Colombian government as they attempt to halt the flow of violence and cocaine that has erupted due the rise of drug lord Pablo Escobar. The series also offers an insight into the personal life of Escobar, his various alliances and dealings with foes, his ruthless campaigns against those who wrong him and of his numerous efforts to evade capture from law enforcement.
When you watch Narcos the thing that will strike you immediately is the fast-paced blend of dramatic re-enactments and short documentary sequences that pop up numerous times in nearly every episode.
These small documentary segments are brilliantly presented in an informative, sometimes funny, sometimes shocking way, allowing the viewer to understand the violent and often surprising history behind Escobar and his drugs empire.
For example, one episode has Escobar running into an obscure Marxist group named M-19, a group that the viewer likely won’t be familiar with, well don’t worry, you get a quick history lesson about who the group is. Another episode has Escobar recruiting a former member of the terror group ETA, with a quick resume of who ETA is for those not in the know.
These sequences are brilliantly edited together in a fast-paced combination of dramatic re-enactments and archive footage from the period, all helping to further immerse the viewer in the violent world the series takes place.
The acting from the cast is spot on, with Wagner Moura leading the pack in a commanding performance as Escobar. Moura masterfully captures all sides of Escobar’s character, the ruthless drug lord, offering potential rivals the choice between “silver or lead” if they try to cross him, but Moura also shows Escobar the loving father and son, showering gifts and affection upon his family, making him appear charming, friendly and even somewhat likeable.
Boyd Holbrook leads the cast from the side of law enforcement, as DEA agent Steve Murphy, who also acts as the viewer’s guide to the world of Escobar via a very charismatic and sometimes funny narration. Murphy is a man far from home attempting to adjust to his new surrounding, all the while attempting to content with the bureaucracy of the U.S. government which is reluctant to commit the resources Murphy desperately needs to apprehend Escobar. Holbrook is a likeable protagonist, yet he like his rival, is a character of many layers, horrified by the violence on the streets, yet willing to take whatever steps he needs to catch his prey, with sometimes shocking consequences.
The supporting cast is also on fine form, from the always wonderful Luiz Guzman portraying Jose Gacha, an equally ruthless drug lord and sometimes ally to Escobar, to Raul Mendez in a sympathetic performance as Colombian President Ceser Gaviria, driving himself to exhaustion while attempting to catch Escobar, including co-operating with Escobar to build La Cathedral, a private prison from which he could run his empire from, just to end the pattern of violence terrorising the citizens of Colombia.
The series, as with many historical films and TV shows, does not stick to the facts with 100% historical accuracy, with names and locations altered for the sake of drama and pacing. But when you read about what the real Escobar got up to, you’ll surprised to find that a fair amount of what you learn from Narcos is indeed true, much of it so bizarre you can’t quite believe it.
Such as how Escobar and other drug lords owned many of Colombia’s football clubs, which the series shows us via archive footage of the real Escobar on a football pitch being applauded by the teams and fans, or how Escobar somehow managed to be elected as a congressman, despite his criminal doings being fairly well known. As I said before, sometimes the truth truly is stranger than fiction.
Narcos is not a perfect series. Some episodes in the middle do drag a slight bit, sometimes feeling a tad like padding, we have some subplots that are not particularly interesting, such as Escobar’s brother engaging in a tryst with the relative of a rival, and the series will often jump over large periods of time without much indication which can lead to some minor confusion.
It should also be noted that the much of the dialogue is performed in Spanish, which while appropriate for a series such as this, might be a turn off for viewers who don’t enjoy reading subtitles.
Overall, though, Narcos is an excellent depiction of one of the most fascinating and violent figures in crime history. With plenty of excellent performances and a fast-paced style that fully immerses the viewer into the colourful and violent world of crime and cocaine.
Check out season 1 currently on Netflix, and look out for season 2 due to be released on September 2nd.
[rating=4] | Graeme Robertson
Crime,Drama | USA,2015 | 18 | Netflix, Arrow Films | 31st August 2016 (UK DVD) | Dir.José Padilha | Wagner Moura, Boyd Holbrook, Pedro Pascal,Joanna Christie | Buy:Narcos Season 1 [DVD]