The best drug cartel movies

Pablo Escobar, perhaps the most notorious and recognizable cartel kingpin of recent years, his notoriety attributed in part to being the face of the infamous Medellín Cartel in Colombia’s 1980s and 1990s, but also to have been the subject of the resounding success of Netflix, Narcos where his reputation as the most fearsome man in South America preceded him. Charlie, chang, snow, blow, or as many know, cocaine, the drug that has as many names as Salvador Dalí, was the commodity Escobar sold. This white powder that is sucked through rolled dollar bills is associated with wealth, addiction and a seductive quality that dates back to the days of 1920s Hollywood.

Since the The wolf of Wall Street for scarface, glamorous drug use has become a habit in itself, and drugs have become the centerpiece of a surprisingly large amount of television lately. Apart Narcosthe last 20 years have seen TV shows like Ozark, Breaking Bad, weed and queen of the south which focus on drug trafficking and drug cartels, but Hollywood cinema might be the most prolific. Becoming a Hollywood mainstay, here are some of the best drug cartel movies…


6 Kick

With the Heard/Depp libel lawsuit raging in the news, some of Heard’s allegations regarding Depp’s relationship with cocaine make the selection for his 2001 film Kick, in retrospect, a little ironic. Nonetheless, Depp is amazing as usual in Ted Demme’s screen adaptation of Bruce Porter’s book of the same name, a fascinating biographical account of the life of George Jung, a drug dealer for the Medellín Cartel and one of the most prominent American smugglers of the 1980s.

5 American made

Based on the remarkable story of TWA pilot Barry Seal, Doug Liman’s American made (formerly known as Mena) follows Tom Cruise as Seal and his work as a Medellín Cartel drug trafficker, and his subsequent position as a DEA informant. Cruise plays Seal in all his ostentatious glory, relieved of the weight of responsibility and the tons of cocaine he’s tasked with carrying on behalf of Escobar and others. American made is the kind of over-the-top, exhilarating, adrenaline-fueled indulgence that Cruise built his reputation on. The 2017 script screams the presence of a big picture, and with Cruise’s “leave nothing on the ground” performance, it delivers just under two hours of cartel-infused drama.

4 End of guard tour

With Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as the film’s protagonists, End of guard tour uses a POV style similar to a dash cam, commonly used in TV factual crime shows, for a shiny and heavily stylized effect. The film kicks off with a voiceover from Officer Taylor (Gyllenhaal) delivering the standard police spiel that they’re just good guys, doing their job enforcing the law. However, while the film relies on the friendly and sometimes improvisational duo, they frequently take advantage of their position, while simultaneously earning the respect of the criminals they deal with.

After a routine traffic stop leads the pair to discover a Mexican drug cartel operation, they are bound to follow the lion to its lair despite potentially deadly consequences. The film’s superb soundtrack and jaw-dropping soundtrack, the most memorable of which is that of Public Enemy. Harder than you think, is an ingenious accompaniment to a film that focuses on how violence breeds violence in a community that is, in part, self-sustaining, “‘F the Police’ but who’s stopping you from killing me?” poignant words go, in a film full of childlike fun, excitement and reflections on the community it represents.

3 Sicario

The masterful director Denis Villeneuve directed the 2015s Sicario. The extremely tense film follows the story of naïve FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), tasked with bringing down a Mexican drug cartel operating across the US-Mexico border alongside the Tormented ex-DA Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) and Kate’s boss, Special Agent Matt Graver. The trio must fight their way through the ever-growing pile of bloodied bodies, or into Sicario‘s case, hanging. While the film is a largely fictionalized account of the horrors that occur under the ruthless jurisdiction of a cartel, much of its context seems to be heartbreakingly accurate and really highlights the barbarism of the cartel’s “business”.

2 Traffic

by Steven Soderbergh Traffic won four Oscars, including Best Director at the 2001 Oscars. The film follows the stories of four people’s lives across America, all of which are intertwined due to the direct or indirect impact of the drug trade in the country on their life. Traffic is a true modern masterpiece, and Soderbergh carefully puts together a powerful cinematic puzzle.

As Roger Ebert said so well: “The film is powerful precisely because it does not preach. It’s so restrained that at some point the judge’s last speech I wanted one more sentence, to make a point, but the film allows us to provide that thought on our own.” The film is a brilliant exposition of the drug wars and drug cartels, while detailing the effects devastating effects of substance use.

1 scarface

As Michelle Pfeiffer’s Elvira Hancock turns to a prepared and inattentive Tony Montana (Al Pacino), and replies “don’t get high on your own supply”, she not only conceives a common quote, now recognized around the world, but it foreshadows the precarious and inevitably fatal road that Montana will soon take. A Cuban refugee, Montana is forced to flee his native home in scarface, and seeks the unattainable American dream. Together with his friend Manny (Steven Bauer), the couple form their own drug cartel and begin to attack the big bosses of the underworld.

Nowadays, Brian De Palma scarface is honored by millions around the world, and not just through its quotable dialogue, but through the iconic black, white, and red poster that adorns the walls of homes (and dorms) around the world. The colors denote Montana’s near-three-dimensional worldview: things are simplistic in simple black and white, but the deadly blood red is still hidden away if interests don’t align with its own. It’s quite simply one of the best films about gangsters, crime empires and drug cartels ever made.

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