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Sunday 11 December 2016

Review: Drug lord biopic Narcos is a habit well worth forming

Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar in the Netflix Original Series Narcos
Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar in the Netflix Original Series Narcos

SOMETIMES the familiar can be a crime drama’s best friend rather than its mortal enemy.

In Netflix’s excellent cocaine-wars epic Narcos, which arrived on Friday begging you to binge-snort all 10 episodes, the familiar is the GoodFellas vibe that runs through it like an electric current.

Scorsese’s masterpiece is regularly – and, you have to assume, consciously – recalled with the use of freeze-frames and an omniscient voiceover by laconic Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Steve Murphy (a sturdy Boyd Holbrook).

Narcos, directed by José Padilha, traces the meteoric rise and bullet-riddled fall of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, “The King of Cocaine”, played with controlled menace by Wagner Moura, who starred in Padhila’s Elite Squad and its sequel. Everyone knows how the story ends, but it’s the getting there that matters.

We see how, even before the 1980s cocaine explosion turned this paunchy, deceptively average-looking man into the wealthiest and most ruthless criminal in history, his power and influence in Colombia were already immense and terrifying. He had most of the police force in his pocket, which gave him a free pass to brazenly smuggle huge quantities of cigarettes and electrical goods into the country in plain view.

In one quietly chilling scene, when a team of elite, heavily-armed cops stops his convoy of trucks at the border, he calmly identifies each of them by name and then casually chats about their families in minute detail. He’s made his point; the convoy is waved through.

Escobar didn’t so much get involved in the international cocaine trade as invent it. Before him, says Murphy, over scenes of him busting flip-flop-wearing Miami hippies carrying backpacks stuffed with dope, “Nobody worried about cocaine in America. All we cared about was grass.”

FLOODING

They’re soon very worried indeed as Escobar starts flooding Miami, then the rest of the country, with nose candy. No matter how much of the history you know, the sheer scale on which Escobar was producing and distributing the stuff from numerous labs in the Colombian rainforest is still jaw-dropping.

Thousands of kilos of coke a week were being transported, in spare tyres, small aircraft, inside the stomachs of pregnant  drug mules, baked into the bodywork of cars, and hidden in just about every food and drink export imaginable, including Coca-Cola. Escobar literally put the coke back into Coke.

Narcos, which really kicks off in episode two when Murphy relocates to Bogota and teams up with more seasoned agent Javier Pena (Pedro Pascal), ingeniously weaves real-life footage – including Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s absurd “Just say no” campaign – into the blend. Instantly addictive.

There’s much that’s familiar in ITV’s three-parter The Trials of Jimmy Rose, too, and none of it is good. Ray Winstone, who’s perfected the art of playing Ray Winstone, is an ageing career criminal just out of the nick after a 12-year stretch for armed robbery.

He discovers his wife (Amanda Redman) no longer loves him and his son doesn’t want him in his life. He’s not much good with smartphones, either.

Two-thirds of the way through episode one, it suddenly goes all Harry Brown-shaped, innit, as Jimmy turns into a lone avenger hell bent on rescuing his junkie granddaughter from the clutches of scummy drug dealers.

I wish Harry – sorry, Jimmy – good luck with his mission, but I won’t be hanging around for two weeks to see how he does.

Rating: *****

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