Monday, 16 March 2020

TV review: Narcos: Mexico, season 1, Netflix (2018)

There are some serious attempts on the part of the director and the cinematographer to mix up the shots so that, sometimes, if a scene show two people talking across a table, each actor has their face placed at the extremity of the frame. This allows the director to create suspense as you can see what is going on behind the actor; it might be a bartender washing glasses, it might be an empty room into which, we imagine, someone with a gun might suddenly walk. You are meant to feel anxiety with this formulation, you are meant to worry.

This kind of trick is not the only one the filmmakers resorted to to add spice to this competent product, which chronicles the establishment of a cartel in Mexico dedicated to the growing and transportation of marijuana for the US market. Sometimes they crop a man’s face so that you can only see the lower half of it, his mouth framed as he lights a cigarette. There are other tricks, too. In episode 8, for example, the director overlays the sound of a helicopter with a shot of a ceiling fan, explicitly copying a scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979).

And you wonder how the filmmakers coped with the need to show, again and again, a group of police or soldiers storming into a room, shooting automatic weapons, killing people. Given the diversity of possible available scenarios, there are a startling number of scenes that are very much alike.

Another shortcoming, in my mind, was the character of Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo (Diego Luna), the head of the cartel. He does a good job of looking, in a large number of scenes, impassive and hostile, just as his nemesis, Drug Enforcement Administration operative Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña), in many scenes does a good job of looking pissed off. The writing is not always brilliant and Gallardo is not well-defined; he comes across looking more like an accountant than anything else, a man only interested in the numbers. Given the large number of people he has to deal with – his colleagues, their henchmen, his wife, his mistresses, the police (in various agencies), the politicians, and his suppliers – I would have thought that it would be possible to extract more drama from him than was achieved by the people who made this TV series.

You also wonder what kind of person he was and whether he only cared about having more and more money. What good does any of it do? What does Gallardo spend his leisure time doing? Does he go dancing? Does he read books? Watch films? Go for drives in the countryside? All that money and he just sits around in his hotel suite looking glum and chain smoking?

Some of the acting is, furthermore, just not very good. In episode 7 the plotline involving Don Neto’s son is dull because actor Joaquín Cosio doesn’t have the required range. Teresa Ruiz is more interesting as Isabella Bautista and Tenoch Huerta as Rafa Quintero is a zany foil for Gallardo’s starched shirt. This drama is typical of the kind of pedestrian stuff being made available now via Netflix, what people compulsively binge-watch and which, if you look a bit more closely, is both full of fat and slow.

There is too much boilerplate. Too many similar scenes. I can see the appeal of this: all those action movies that get made rely on stereotypical elements to tell stories. There is the flawed hero, the panning shots above a city (often at night) that add a sense of wonder and that relax the viewer, the boilerplate senior law enforcement agent who has to be convinced to give the go-ahead for the madcap strike, the massing of weapons, the car chase, the fight scene between the hero and the dastardly bad guy, the guns they point at one another across a street or across a room.

We are attracted to things that conform to what we already perceive to be meaningful. We are convinced that the inclusion of such elements is the mark of quality even though, if we thought about it, we might realise that we are being flattered, that the filmmakers are putting them into the product in order to keep us paying, to keep us coming back for more. They are our crack cocaine, our fix, and with streaming TV we have more of it than ever before. That doesn’t make it good for us, or interesting. It only confirms what the producers already knew: we can be gulled.

Having made all these points I have to add that ‘Narcos: Mexico’ is instructive. It puzzled me, however, that the filmmakers decided to bleep out the names of politicians in one scene (I won’t say more about it for fear of spoiling the show for those who have not yet seen it). This is a dramatization and it is a free dramatization: there is no way that some of the scenes in it could have happened like this in real life, reality is messier and more random. This is a slick product with carefully scripted scenes that are designed to give each turn in the plot a certain dramatic moment. The veiling of the identities of some prominent Mexican politicians seemed, to me, odd for a show that intentionally links crime to politics and to the Mexican police (and army).

To close, I have to say that the kick in the tail of this season is strong, and is a move I didn’t see coming, so I look forward to watching season 2.

No comments: