Reading Vice magazine, you get the impression of intelligent writers having to use their skills for an audience to which they do not necessarily belong, sort of like a Daily Mail or Sun for pretentious hipsters (at least, this reviewer does). With shabby-but-articulate Vice co-founder Shane Smith’s casual profession of a love of drugs just a few seconds into The Vice Guide to Film: Mexican Narco Cinema, it seems like Vice‘s new web series is going to be more of the same, which is why it’s such a pleasant surprise when it quickly turns into a well-made, entertaining and easily consumed piece of film journalism.
Smith travels from Texas to Tijuana, on the way doing a great job of putting Mexico’s ultra-violent Narco Cinema of drug runners, fetishised cars and bad cops in context. He outlines the importance of Mexico’s drug industry to its economy and then interviews a film commissioner, who reveals that only 18% of the population can afford to go to the cinema. It’s no wonder then that these straight-to-DVD (the genre is also known as ‘Videohome’), low-budget action movies about poor Mexicans who use drug-running as a way to lift themselves out of poverty and give back to the community have become so popular, both in Mexico and with immigrants in the US. Think Scarface, but without the tragic fall. Or at least, if the characters do get shot at the end, there’s always a family member to take revenge in the sequel.
Each film is based on a ballad (corrido) about a famous criminal, which makes the whole genre reminiscent of the way the Robin Hood legend got started with the troubadours of Europe. However, in this instance both song and movie are almost always commissioned by the narco in question, with serious consequences for not sticking to the agreed script. So of course everyone Smith interviews speaks of the narcos in heroic terms and the genre singularly fails to hold a mirror up to Mexican society. To his credit, Smith has a go at highlighting this irony, interspersing clips of Narco Cinema with shots of real-world victims caught in the crossfire between the narcos and the government forces trying to crack down on them.
The overall message though is that these innovative, $40,000-50,000 films, which are shot on location, with the script written on the fly, where more often than not each character type is played by their real-world counterpart (the prostitute is a an actual prostitute, etc.), are a lot of fun and it doesn’t really matter which of them you watch, so long as there’s a car in the title. On this point The Vice Guide to Film: Mexican Narco Cinema is pretty convincing, although one criticism would be that as there are thousands of these films in existence surely there must be some canonical highlights for newcomers interested in exploring the genre?