El Chapo review: All the charisma of a spent bullet casing

The Netflix show can’t discern between the gravity of fact and the thrill of fiction

El Chapo: He’s ruthless, enjoys tunnels and relies on a single scowling facial expression

El Chapo: He’s ruthless, enjoys tunnels and relies on a single scowling facial expression

 

Narcotic dramas can be dangerously addictive. Maybe you encountered Trainspotting at a party once, and in its euphoric afterglow started dabbling in Easy Rider or Scarface. How long before you couldn’t get through the day without a quick blast of The Wire, or hit rock-bottom, forced to choose between Narcos and your family?

At first sight, El Chapo (Netflix, now streaming), may seem like further cause for concern. A dramatization of the eventful life and voracious career ambitions of Joaquín Guzmán, it follows the Mexican drug lord’s vicious ascent since the 1980s. Mercifully, though, it’s much easier to come off this stuff. The series originally aired in Spanish, for co-producer Univision, and has since been dubbed into English by voice actors with tranquilised indifference.

It begins with El Chapo’s dangerous overture to Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug smuggler, when Marco de la O’s young turk promises to move two tonnes of blow in 48 hours. So begins an episodic account of his risky wagers, life perpetually in the balance, while the show itself seems fascinatingly risk-averse. That it resembles some of the action of Narcos – the competition, the government, the grisly warnings and wars – but none of its intrigue is one problem. Five episodes in, all I can tell you about El Chapo, the man, is that he’s ruthless, enjoys tunnels and relies on a single scowling facial expression.

The show is similarly unilluminating about Mexican political corruption, folding governmental hypocrites into any number of warring ganglords as a cabal of plotting hypocrites whom El Chapo – valorised as a kind of psychopathic go-getter – has to overcome.

Why should we root for him? Beats me. He has all the charisma of a spent bullet casing and only half the rich internal life. Still, El Chapo is resourceful. Who couldn’t admire his 2015 prison escape, by means of a tunnel and an underground motorbike, or how merrily he burrowed through an equally pliant Sean Pean in a notorious interview the same year? This show is similarly taken in, unable to discern between the gravity of fact and the thrill of fiction. For everybody else, El Chapo is an easy habit to quit, a breeze to escape.

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