Narcos Review: "Descenso"/"The Sword of Simón Bolivar"

(Episode 1.01 and 1.02)

TV Reviews Narcos
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<i>Narcos</i> Review: "Descenso"/"The Sword of Simón Bolivar"

The new Netflix series chronicles the rise of emperor-esque Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, played with subtly smoldering intensity by burgeoning Brazilian character actor Wagner Moura, who grew a pencil moustache and a paunch to better resemble the real life criminal mastermind that he is depicting.

Like many of today’s most exciting dramas, Narcos features plenty of edgy action packed sequences and horrifically gory scenes, in which characters meet their makers in creative fashions. One of the most eye popping moments in the pilot comes when a coke cooker named Cockroach crawls out of a pit of corpses, after successfully playing dead when rivals shoot up his base of operations. Viewers are also sure to enjoy a slick early tracking shot that captures a gun battle between dealers and a team of narcotics officers lead by Mexican DEA agent Javier Pena (played with sleazy, gumshoe gusto by Pedro Pascal, AKA Oberyn Martell from Game of Thrones).

But unlike many of its fellow prestige dramas, Narcos’ blood and gore consistently drive the story, instead of succumbing to cable TV’s all-too-frequent gratuity. And as effective as those thrilling action sequences are, the series’ most chilling— and refreshingly creative— moments come courtesy of the dialogue. An early scene in which Escobar gets pulled over by highway patrolmen never erupts in gunfire. Instead, it moves with slow burning tension, as the would-be kingpin addresses each of the officers by name and asks unnervingly specific questions about their family members. His ensuing monologue, in which he declares: “I am Pablo Escobar, and my eyes are everywhere,” evokes Breaking Bad’s famed “Say my name,” speech. Moura’s turn as Escobar is by no means comparable to Bryan Cranston’s Emmy winning work, but the younger star clearly has the potential to turn his character into a classic TV anti-hero in his own right.

But Breaking Bad isn’t the chief influence here. That honor clearly goes to the classic Scorsese crime flick Goodfellas, a muse that’s evident in everything from the new drama’s briskly sweeping camera work, nitty gritty depictions of the gangsters’ operations, its retro props and setting (the mid-80’s in Narcos, compared to Goodfellas’ 1970’s focus, but still), blood curdling dialogue, shocking bursts of violence, and more. But the biggest Goodfellas parallel can be attributed to American DEA agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), who provides a snarky voiceover akin to Ray Liotta’s in the earlier seminal gangster film, although Narcos’ rendition is far less humorous and far more bogged down by exposition. In fact, the old Hollywood trope of telling an exotically located story from the vantage of an all-too typically hunky American protagonist may be Narcos’ weakest link, although Holbrook’s sturdy performance helps him rise above his material (which is flimsy in comparison to Moura and Pascal’s richly written characters).

Thankfully, Murphy’s arc grows more intriguing throughout the pilot. He begins as a Miami DEA agent busting drug traffickers and giving tips to his Latin American counterparts from afar. Escobar, meanwhile, begins moving his product in ernest up North, where there is an increasing demand, thanks to the expert chemistry of the aforementioned coke master Cockroach. As Murphy realizes that the harmless hippies in flip flops that he’d been arresting for weed possession are being usurped by much more professional, and lethal, Colombian drug runners, he longs to get to the heart of the action. The pilot ends with he and his wife, Connie (Joanna Christie), boarding a plane for Colombia. The second episode picks up immediately afterward, with the American couple excitedly eyeing a beautiful Bahamian island their plane flies over, as Murphy’s already-improved voiceover notes that Escobar had created a party haven—a “modern day Sodom and Gomorrah” on that island, which the narcos also used as a refuel depot, because they had such numerous planes flying their product to The States.

While many series have explosively exciting pilots— only to have the action peter off in the ensuing episodes before finding a better balance later in the season— Narcos’ second episode feels like a seamless conclusion to its premiere entry, like two halves of a beautifully made Latin American independent film. That should come as no surprise, however, considering both episodes were helmed by acclaimed Brazilian director José Padilha. He and Moura previously worked together on the breakout crime thriller Elite Squad, and their chemistry is palpable, as Padilha captures his star’s fiercely ingenious scheming, along with quieter moments that highlight his compassion and make him far more intriguing than a one-note villain. Fine examples of that Escobar tenderness occur both early in the second episode, when a cruel associate (played by Luis Guzman) kills a drug dog, much to Pablo’s despair, and later when he quickly opts to spare the life of a mother and her child who nearly happen upon the slain bodies of his enemies during a walk in the park.

Such twists make up only a fraction of the second episode’s overstuffed plot, which features everything from Escobar consolidating his control of the region’s cartels; a gang rape of one of Pena’s informants, who was caught at the cartel meeting’s afterparty posing as a hooker to glean information from the narcos; a thrilling shootout as the Mexican DEA agent mounts a rescue for that informant; Murphy tersely confronting Pena for not inviting him to partake in that rescue; the kidnapping of one of Escobar’s relatives by Colombian Marxist radicals; the kingpin’s methodical slaying of those communist militants, prompting their surrender; a twisted threat on the Murphys in their new Columbian abode by the narcos; and much, much more. And while that abundant action may be tough to keep entirely straight before the credits roll, it moves at an efficiently entertaining pace that keeps the viewer waiting breathlessly for the next twist, unlike other recent dramas that have collapsed under the weight of their mammoth plots (ahem, True Detective).

These elements, and more, not only make Narcos one of the most promising new dramas of the late summer/early fall season, but also one of Netflix’s strongest offerings yet (think Orange is the New Black caliber, rather than the mound of cliches that House of Cards has built up). Viewers will be sure to binge watch with a gusto akin to the clientele that snorted up Escobar’s finely produced powder.

Stray observations:

That’s Luis Guzman— a veteran Puerto Rican character actor featured in numerous Steven Soderbergh and Paul Thomas Anderson flicks— playing José Rodríguez Gacha, one of the higher ups in Escobar’s growing empire. No one can play a sleazy henchman better.

Murphy’s narration steadily improves throughout the second episode, especially when he describes one of Escobar’s henchmen, who has a history of Arian affiliation, as “a fan of both John Lennon and Hitler. Go figure.” Hopefully that trend will continue, and he’ll avoid the kind of cheesy one liners that he doled out throughout the pilot.

The second episode’s gang rape scene thankfully relied on implication, and was cathartically cut short by the DEA’s rescue. That’s a refreshing treatment of such content in this age of Game of Thrones gratuity.

When the Colombian communist leader surrenders to Escobar, handing over the ceremonial saber that he stole from a national museum, the kingpin’s merciful sparing of this burgeoning enemy, and hoisting of that blade, had all the subtlety of a Greek tragedy. Moura’s ability to pull such a contritely written scene off is a testament to the actor’s finely honed performance. His take on Escobar is formidable.