Throughout his career, producer-director-writer Michael Mann (Miami Vice, Crime Story) has concentrated on moody, bitter thrillers in which one tough, noble fellow — a Mann’s man, as it were — battles an overwhelming adversary. That foe might be something human, like the genius serial killer in Mann’s terrific 1986 theatrical film Manhunter, or it might be something more inhuman, such as the Colombian drug trade in Drug Wars: The Cocaine Cartel.
This four-hour follow-up to Mann’s excellent, Emmy-winning 1990 mini-series Drug Wars: The Camarena Story is another tale of ripped-from-yesterday’s-headlines Central American crime. Although its American Drug Enforcement Agency heroes are fictional, its two main villains are not. The drug lords Pablo Escobar Gaviria (played by Gustav Vintas) and Jose Rodriguez Gacha (Geno Silva) are depicted as the brains and the muscle, respectively, behind the notorious Medellin cartel, which has manufactured and exported massive amounts of cocaine throughout the world.
Fighting these bad guys are DEA agents led by Thomas Vaughan (Alex McArthur) and Mike Cerone (Dennis Farina, star of Crime Story). The plot is little more than an elaborate version of cops and robbers, with a cast so vast that executive producer Mann and director Paul Krasny (Centennial) have felt it necessary to freeze-frame each main character and superimpose a brief bio sketch as he or she is introduced.
Two supporting characters immediately rise above the rest. Julie Carmen (The Milagro Beanfield War) is as tough as any tough guy, playing Sonia Perez-Vega, a Colombian judge (based on a real-life counterpart) who backs the efforts of both her country and the U.S. to prosecute Escobar. And the tirelessly eccentric John Glover appears as Lloyd ”Loco” Garrison (a composite character), a convicted American drug trafficker whose extensive knowledge of the cartel enables him to cut a deal with the DEA.
To convey Loco’s loco-ness, Glover puts on a honey-thick Southern accent, yowls ”Amazing Grace” for no good reason, and in general acts like Gomer Pyle on acid — it’s another one of Glover’s shrewd over-the-top-but-under-control performances.
The best parts of Drug Wars guide us swiftly through the mechanics of the drug world — the processing of the cocaine, the smuggling of it out of the country, the laundering of billions of drug-profit dollars, and the ruthless killing of anyone who gets in the cartel’s way — as well as the DEA’s disruption of those activities. But as McArthur leads his forces deeper and deeper into the center of the Medellin cartel, it becomes clear that Drug Wars has two big problems.
The first is that its Mann’s man simply isn’t very compelling. McArthur has been just dandy as a remorseless gunslinger in NBC’s Desperado series of TV movies — his spare, urgent work in those films no doubt convinced Mann he could handle this role. But there’s no inner life behind the clear blue eyes of McArthur’s Vaughan, and he communicates toughness by pursing his thin lips and frowning — more often than not, he looks prissy, not fierce.
It doesn’t help McArthur that he’s saddled with the tritest of all hardboiled-hero clichés: an unhappy family life. Many times, just as the action in Drug Wars gets cranked up, director Krasny cuts to a boring scene with Vaughan on the phone to his sympathetic ex-wife (Karen Young), explaining why he won’t be able to take their 13-year-old son to the movies this weekend. You know, honey, I have to take a helicopter onto the grounds of a heavily guarded cocaine-processing factory in a foreign country, and I just don’t think I’ll be home in time for that matinee of Hook.
The miniseries’ other problem is its frequently clichéd dialogue. The first Drug Wars script, by Christopher Canaan, Mel Frohman, Rose Schacht, and Ann Powell, won an Emmy for its relentless pace and the whiplash sting of its curt chatter; that’s exactly what’s missing from this new one, written by Gordon Greisman and Gail Morgan Hickman.
In Drug Wars, the main characters don’t talk, they make pronouncements: ”I’m one of the richest men in the world, and I want this woman dead!” Escobar bellows about Judge Perez-Vega. ”You hear me — dead!” All right already. And when that poor judge has to flee her country because of the bounty Escobar has put on her head, Vaughan asks solemnly of no one in particular, ”Is this what happens to the righteous down here? Are they all forced into exile?” Naturalistic dialogue this ain’t.
But, its hollow hero aside, Drug Wars offers more good acting than most TV movies (in addition to Carmen, Glover, and Farina, Vintas makes Escobar a chilling baddie, dead-eyed and desiccated), and there are a number of big action sequences as tensely edited as anything you’d pay good money to see at a movie theater. What Wars lacks, ultimately, is the unsentimental soulfulness of a Michael Mann project at its best. B-