“Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction,” “Narcos” ’s narrator, DEA agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook, “Run All Night”), meditates. “There’s a reason magical realism was born in Colombia. It’s a country where dreams and reality are conflated, where in their heads people fly as high as Icarus. But even magical realism has its limits.”
Following the rise and rule of infamous Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura, “Elite Squad”), “Narcos” crafts a sweeping narrative of corruption and brutality that spans nearly two decades. The life of Escobar is simultaneously alluring and repulsive. Filled with wealth, sex and excess, the lifestyle is reminiscent of the gangsters on display in films such as “Goodfellas,” a fantasy of riches and dreams come true. But, like its American counterpart, “Narcos” displays the sickening foundation that built this empire and the toxic effect it has on those involved, as Escobar grows more brutal and paranoid and violence becomes the only answer.
On the other side of the law, the American Murphy, his partner Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal, “Game of Thrones”) and Colombian Colonel Horatio Carillo (Maurice Compte, “A Walk Among the Tombstones”) are tasked with taking down Escobar. The trio is a mixed bag. Pascal highlights the charisma he had as Oberyn Martell in “Game of Thrones” in his portrayal of Peña, a smooth veteran who knows that capturing Escobar requires some extralegal means as bureaucracy continuously interferes. Carillo shares this sentiment, but has the added burden of calling the country home and seeing it turn into a battlefield.
Moura handles Escobar with a deft performance that humanizes the man but never glosses over how monstrous he can be. He gives money to the poor, but later plagues his homeland with car bombings so he can get what he wants. Escobar is a violent man but not a dumb one, as Moura displays intelligence behind every move. Nowhere is this better on display than Escobar’s introduction. Under the direction of José Padilha (the director of “Elite Squad”), Moura as Escobar intimidates several border guards into submission, blatantly displaying the items he smuggles. The camera lingers on Escobar as he casually brings up the names of the soldiers, then the names of their wives and children, giving them the choice, “Plata o plomo,” (silver or lead). Shot in one take, the scene is a chilling display of control with Padilha, who is also a producer for the series. The standard for “Narcos” is estahblished early on by capturing Columbia’s paradox of aesthetic beauty against social suffering and violence.
Murphy isn’t as effective. Portrayed with a southern drawl by Holbrook, Murphy is the new guy thrust into the jungles and slums of Colombia. Murphy’s story is one of initial patriotism and disillusionment, giving way to the realization that “Good and bad, they’re relative concepts.” Only when Murphy plunges into the rabbit hole of obsession with bringing Escobar to justice does he become somewhat interesting. However, some unhinged moments, like when he shoots the tires of a frustrated cabbie, still feel forced.
The most truly irritating aspect of Murphy derives from his near constant narration. While occasionally offering a clever or sobering observation, “Narcos” ’s voiceover serves mainly as an information dump, supplying facts about Escobar’s dynasty or plot information. Considering the scope of the series, it’s understandable that narration will be used, but it’s so constant and occasionally unnecessary in its hand-holding that it becomes an annoyance.
The beast that is the real life story behind “Narcos” is hard to tame, and though the show tries its best to wrestle with as much as it can, it sometimes loses its grip. With reflections on American interventionism, the nature of good and evil and the ineffective hypocrisy of bureaucracy among its themes, “Narcos” has a lot to say within its first 10 episodes, creating a balancing act that alternatively soars and tumbles with the execution. The show uses actual news footage to inconsistently enforce these ideas. At times the use drives home the reality of the situation: that truth is crazier than fiction. However, at times it feels like a blatant cost cutting measure, considering the use of the Palace of Justice siege, a pivotal event is almost entirely stock footage.
“Narcos” may struggle at times handling its ambition, but it still delivers enough of its initial promise – crafting a fascinating portrayal of one of history’s most brutal criminals and the dark world surrounding him.