Written and directed by Luis Estrada
Billed as a gangster movie of the same scope and caliber as Scarface and Goodfellas, but set in Mexico, El Narco (formerly El infierno) cribs the skeletal arc of these films adequately but is thematically and tonally all over the place. It’s a film that very clearly was built to fit into that tradition of epic, bloody crime dramas, but, not unlike the film’s protagonist, director Luis Estrada gets greedy. As a result, El Narco is bloated and aimless for much of its run as Estrada tries to balance farce, ultra-violence, detached irony, tragedy, tender emotion, politics, earnest drama, and several opposing moral platitudes. And, really, it could all just be detached irony. But it remains unclear what exactly El Narco is intended to be, as it seems like it is intended to be everything it imitates.
And now that you’ve been suitably dissuaded: there are some successful elements of El Narco. For example, the first act is incredibly promising. We follow Benny Garcia (Damián Alcázar), who, 20 years prior, abandoned his mother and brother to make it big in America, as he returns to Mexico. Despite his selfish disappearance, Benny appears to be the best guy ever as he reintroduces himself to his hometown and its residents. He is shocked to learn that his brother, after Benny’s departure, entered the illicit drug business, became known as “El Diablo”, and was violently murdered. “El Diablo” is survived by his prostitute wife and little boy, and Benny quickly enters their life as a father figure. This segment, though generally funny and interesting, gives way to an unbelievable and tonally schizophrenic tale of Benny entering and quickly becoming corrupted by the world of illegal drugs.
The problem is not the setup. Mexico is an intriguing choice for this type of film, and the idea of Benny corrupting himself into a horrible person should be fascinating to watch. The film’s escalating action also is fun and successfully propels the viewer out of a sagging middle act. The issue is that none of it seems very believable. Estrada is too enamored with his characters to paint any of them as real villains and so insistent on his humor that the ostensibly tragic moments lack any weight. Further, Benny’s character is a mess of contradiction. Beyond a fluid, nonsensical, moral code, Alcázar just doesn’t convincingly portray Benny’s evolution. El Narco is a series of set-pieces that get consistently crazier with no through-line.
There are a few truly wonderful laughs throughout, and a few incredible characters. Ernesto Gomez Cruz’s Don José Reyes is a perfect example of how a contradictory character should be played. He is a ruthless, violent man who loves his wife and son (also fantastic characters) but will kill and torture indiscriminately to protect his interests. The difference, perhaps, is that the Don is a man of conviction in a film which has no convictions about a man who consistently commits acts that fly in the face of his own convictions. El Narco is sometimes a fun ride, but it can be an infuriating watch.
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