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Every year or so, a film is released showcasing the varied aspects of either one or several highly lethal narcotics and its burgeoning enterprise. Films like these tend to center upon the kingpin or warlord whose enterprise is either on the rise, in major jeopardy from cops and rival smuggling rings, or both. While some of them may illustrate real life human issues, like addiction, suicide, and injustice, the best drug cartel movies also offer a glimpse into an underworld that thrives under our very noses and infests our country with poisonous toxins for not only profit, but revolution. Many of us tend to forget that these international cartels, gun running rings, and terrorist organizations all work together to bolster their various schemes across the world; respectively, illegal drug trafficking, increased dangerous weapons on the streets, and simply worldwide fear.
But often the message isn't to appraise these lucrative individuals, or their illicit businesses, but to gaze at their psyches, into their thoughts and emotions, as they try to unravel the folds of this criminal underworld. Watching Scarface for the nth time, for instance, I always subconsciously feel the character's pure adrenaline mixing with an extraordinary cocaine high as Tony Montana mishandles a M16 assault rifle, yet somehow still manages to take out as many targets as possible as they bum-rush his Miami mansion—all while being shot to gory bits without so much as a twitch of pain or show of stopping. Despite being a villain and an all-around baddy, most of the audience feels for Scarface and his lackluster transgressions, since he strived to achieve nothing but the fabled "American Dream." Though they're not all fictitious, it's important to remember the following illustrious of drug trafficking are just that: iterations, films, and nothing more. Watch some of the most satisfying pictures depicting and underscoring the culture of narcotics if only to catch a glimpse of their hold on this world... and also to examine the nature of their international monopolies.
City of God
City of God is my absolute favorite film among the best drug cartel movies, for one because it requires constant attention since it's a foreign picture with subtitles. Secondly, City of God also shows one of the most human and innocent sides of this phenomena with the character of Rocket.
The story takes place in a gang-infested 1960s Rio de Janeiro, where two young boys, Rocket and Lil Ze, traverse the streets of boyhood and crime. However, their two tales differ dramatically; Rocket gains fame in photography, while Ze infamy in drug dealing. These always intersecting, always intertwining stories capture a sentimental side of narcotics and the nature of criminality in international sectors.
Released back in 2000, Traffic still holds an immense characterization of the war on drugs, as well as paints an interesting aspect of narcotics. Traffic follows multiple characters and their intertwining issues.
One of the characters, who's incidentally the head of the drug task force, must come to grips with his daughter's malignant heroin addiction. One DEA agent struggles to find his place in this war, while a Mexican cop begins to show some moral high ground as he questions his boss' major plans. In all, Traffic seamlessly weaves these characters and stories together like no other and is a spectacle among drug cartel movies.
I'm not quite sure what it is, but since the Bonds movies have come out, I can only seen Daniel Craig in the role. He's the perfect 007 British spy, but an even better role is his unnamed character in Layer Cake. This is one of those wildly hilarious and ridiculously violent British films akin to RocknRolla and Snatch.
Don't let this fool you, though, Layer Cake stands as its own in terms of the best drug cartel movies. Even the name itself alludes to this concept, referring to layers one must climb in order to reach the top of the business. Daniel Craig's business? Highly profitable cocaine dealer who gets thrust into a world of misfortune when a shipment of pure ecstasy goes missing.
It's intriguing as it is elegantly filmed; Sicario will take your breath away using multiple cinematic tropes and thematic concepts. I shouldn't even have to mention how Benecio del Toro simply becomes Alejandro, a ruthless cartel associate turned assassin for the CIA. It's not only an interesting, thought provoking tale, but shows us a deeper aspect of Mexico and the cartels' systematic control over the land.
Each character gives a groundbreaking performance, and Josh Brolin's spook, Matt Graver, certainly rubs off on the viewer's sentimentalities the entire time. You're left trying to figure out what Alejandro's motives really are as opposed to Graver's. With the sequel coming out this year, I highly suggest rewatching this 2015 classic as it's one of the best drug cartel movies around.
Clear and Present Danger
It may not be up everyone's ally, but Jack Ryan has a special place in my heart for some odd reason. Though my favorite would have to be Sum of all Fears, I think one of the best drug cartel movies under the Jack Ryan storyline is Clear and Present Danger.
Released in 1994, this story by Tom Clancy unfolds with a secret paramilitary force being run by the CIA in Columbia, while Jack Ryan suddenly gets appointed Deputy Director of the Agency. It's got government coverups, secret complications, and more of the same thrilling action that makes every Jack Ryan movie an instant hit, but with a striking cartel twist that will leave you speechless.
Much like Tony Montana in Scarface, Frank Lucas too sought for nothing but the "American Dream." Working and mentoring under a highly dangerous and well-respected mafia boss, Bumpy Johnson, Lucas gains immense knowledge of the streets and the culture of violence in New York City. After Bumpy dies, no sooner does Frank take his spot at the zenith of Harlem's heroin distribution.
It wouldn't be one of the best drug cartel movies if it didn't at least portray the other side, that is: the police investigation. American Gangster takes viewers on both paths with a deadbeat but morally sound cop, Richie Roberts. It's one of Russel Crowe's best roles, in my opinion, and it goes without saying Denzel Washington owns Frank Lucas's shadow.
Based on the true story of George Jung and his gradual rise to the top of the cocaine business amid the late 1970s and 1980s, Blow truly is one of the most captivating drug cartel movies. It never holds back, showing deeper and broader angles of Georgie from a young age, to the very present. Sad as the story may be in its entirety, there's still plenty of laughs to go around and familiar faces, like Pablo Escobar, one of the most notorious criminals of all time, for one. Jung was, after all, one of several traffickers in the Medellin drug cartel ring which took over the drug trade in the 1980s.
Starting with marijuana in the 1960s, George and his new pal Tuna make major profits and are no sooner accepted as the go-to for the best weed in California. Once arrested and put in prison, George learns the ins and outs of the cocaine business from his cellmate. Together, after being released, the duo soared to the top of the international cocaine trade, experiencing major profits that inevitably led to their downfall. My favorite line is narrated by George Jung:
"In fact, if you snorted cocaine in the late 1970s or early 80s, there was an 85% chance it came from us."
As the most infamous of all drug cartel movies giving us an inside look of the uses and business practices for cocaine in the 1980s, Scarface is always true to form. As gory, intensem and electrifying as it is well-crafted, this 1983 film directly props up the war on drugs and shows us the destructive powers of narcotics.
Oliver Stone's written genius and Brian De Palma's expert directing collide to bring us this masterpiece, only the further bolstered by Al Pacino's impeccable portrayal of a menacing drug dealer turned drug kingpin. The Scarface remake, however, has a new lead.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico
Starring Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, and Johnny Depp, Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a joy ride of hilarity and violence that cuts across the barren, dry airs of "Mehico" like no other. Banderas plays a hitman who gets thrust into a conspiracy to overthrow the Mexican government concocted by a corrupt CIA agent and a drug lord.
Mexico is ripe with violence and narcotics trafficking, if not extreme criminality in general, but after seeing this classic among drug cartel movies, you're sure to see the allure of that sun-streaked land south of the border. The movie may not present narco cultura as much as the others, but let's face it: the story, third in Robert Rodriguez's "Mariachi" trilogy, is simply killer.
Given all new faces, a full-blown modernization, and a many new slippery drug smugglers to capture, "Sonny" Crocket and Rico "Tubbs" return to the sun-soaked, cocaine infested Miami locale following their 16 year hiatus from the TV screen. Played by Colin Ferrel and Jamie Foxx, respectively, the character pair seem as if they have never even left the scene.
Despite relatively poor reviews from fans even though it's one of the best drug cartel movies, due to an overarching story with a berth of uninteresting characters, the two undercover detectives have once again disappeared. According to NBC, writer Chris Morgan and Vinn Diesel are working on a reboot of this classic 1980s hit show.
The most hilarious and over the top hit that launched Seth Rogen's career, Pineapple Express remains a classic stoner movie and one of the most comical drug cartel movies. Outright poking fun at all of the rest in this category, Pineapple Express looks almost to celebrate the fun highs of marijuana while also challenge the modern view of its illegality.
The movie revolves around a process server and his marijuana dealer, both of whom are caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous drug kingpin and corrupt police. Rogen plays Dale Denton, the process server, whose lackluster life has suddenly turned into mayhem. A laugh riot for all stoners (and non-stoner alike), Pineapple Express can't be ignored. Plus it's a movie made by a high director, so how could you not love it?