Before walking into Luis Estrada’s Mexican crime thriller El Narco, I had heard several people say, “Oh, that’s the one that’s like Scarface.” It’s an interesting proposition, to say the least. A rags-to-riches drug lord story isn’t hard to come by, especially from a country like Mexico where the drug trade looms large over the population. Those themes are built into their societal norms. That said, Scarface was a film about a Cuban man written and directed by two American men. And I learned a long time ago that Cuba and Mexico are completely different countries. So it came as no surprise that while there are a few thematic similarities — you know, like drugs — these two movies couldn’t be further apart. Both work well, but in their own special way.
El Narco follows the story of Benny Garcia (Damián Alcázar), a man who leaves his mother and younger brother to emigrate to the United States. Twenty years later, we meet Benny as he’s being deported back to Mexico. “Please move along,” says the American border guard. “And never come back.” From the land of opportunity to his gang-torn homeland, Benny comes back to find that things have changed. His brother had become, before his untimely demise, a big time dealer known as El Diablo, married a smoking hot prostitute and had a son. With a sense of debt to the brother he left behind and couldn’t keep on the straight and narrow, Benny tries to pick up the pieces and take care of his brother’s family. He soon gets far more than he bargained for. Aside from the obvious perks — sexing up his brother’s old lady, becoming a father figure to the boy — there isn’t much left in his hometown. If you want to make money, you deal drugs for Don Jose Reyes, the local kingpin. Caught up in his desire to provide for his newly acquired family unit, Benny takes to dealing. And that’s where things begin to accelerate significantly.
If some of this sounds familiar, don’t be surprised. There isn’t a whole lot that’s new about Benny’s story. He gets involved, reluctantly, with the drug trade and quickly excels. Then he gets a little greedy and begins having to pay the price in blood. Alright, so I can see the Scarface comparison, but only in broad thematic brush strokes. What El Narco does that’s unique is that it maintains an incredible amount of style and flair. Memorable supporting characters, including Benny’s friend El Cochiloco (Joaquin Cosio), provide color for an otherwise drab, dust-covered landscape. Be it intentional or unintentional — it’s difficult to tell, as the story is delivered completely void of irony — it’s a very funny film. Then it becomes a very violent film. Then it becomes a very, very, very violent film. Then the shooting starts, if you can believe such a thing.
Carried by humor and charisma early on, Estrada’s film ultimately explodes with a blood bath of a drug cartel turf war. No man is left unscathed, no death is unearned and it all pays off with big moments in the final act. Long by at least 15 minutes or so, the film pays its audience back for a slow start by unleashing the grim, hellish fury of Mexico’s gangland conflicts. The turn can be jarring, as the film flips quickly from funny and slow to extreme violence, but in the end it’s plenty entertaining, leaving the audience to believe that it has lived up to its original name, El Infierno (“Hell”).
The Upside: There’s some deep, dark comedy that keeps the film rolling early on and it gets entertainingly violent down the stretch. Fun performances and flair make it a worthwhile trip south of the border.
The Downside: The pacing, especially in the film’s first act, is clunky and the story feels bloated. But when it finally focuses and gets down to death and destruction, it’s a hell of a ride.