Narcos (and five of the best gangsters on TV)
There have been few drug traffickers in the course of human history that have managed to achieve the same level of power and notoriety as Pablo Escobar. The Colombian who, as part of the feared Medellin Cartel, was reportedly responsible for importing as much as 80% of America's cocaine supply in the 1980s has been the subject of numerous films and documentaries already, but last year Netflix begun screening another of its original series, this time focussed on the exploits of both Escobar and his fellow cartel members, as well as the CIA's attempts to shut them down.
Narcos will finally be coming to DVD and Blu-ray on Monday and stars Wagner Moura as the combustible drug lord, detailing his rise to power in Colombia during the 1970s, and the attempts of the CIA's agents stationed in the South American country to capture Escobar and stem the flow of illicit narcotics into the United States, with limited success.
But what's special about Narcos is that the story of his rise to a controlling position in the cocaine business is told in the context of his country's political situation at that time, including his ambitions to launch a legitimate political career of his own. Despite his ruthless reputation as a cold-blooded killer, there was also a side to Escobar that genuinely wanted to lift his country's population out of poverty, a situation he blamed on a corrupt political system that served its own needs before those of the Colombian people.
Escobar is thought to have been the wealthiest criminal in the world at the height of his reign over the country's drug trade, amassing a fortune estimated to be in the region of $30 billion, and while nobody could describe him as a saint, he won the affections of the people by investing some of his money in badly needed infrastructure projects such as housing, endearing himself to those who were happy to turn a blind eye to his darker side in exchange for a roof over their heads.
Moura is a revelation in the role of the Colombian drug lord, supported by a talented cast that also includes British actress Joanna Christie, The Big C's Boyd Holbrook and Graceland's Pedro Pascal. It's not a cast packed with big names, but Narcos doesn't need one; this is as good an account of Escobar's story as you're likely to see, and with a second season due to air later this year, there's plenty more to come too.
For now, check out the trailer for Season 1 below. Beneath that we've picked another five of the best gangsters ever to appear on TV...
Fans of Breaking Bad witnessed Walter White make the transition over the course of five seasons from good-natured chemistry teacher to ruthless meth baron, but even with Walter at his most single-minded and deranged, there was one criminal in his midst that was head and shoulders above the rest. Tantalisingly little is known about the meticulously secretive Gus 'Chicken Man' Fring, running his drug empire behind the face of his restaurant chain Los Pollos Hermanos, other than the fact that he originally hails from Chile. But while Fring may have been the quiet man, he was also extremely ruthless and became one of the most fascinating characters on the show. There are many episodes in which Gus shows off his badass credentials, but his crowning moment has to be the scene at the house of his rival, Mexican Cartel boss Don Eladio, where he takes revenge for the murder of his former partner by wiping out Eladio's whole crew with poisoned tequila and stumbles from the building, defiantly declaring to any survivors: “All your bosses are dead. Join me, or fight me and die.”
The Wire has many brilliant characters, some of the best of whom are the criminals who run the narcotics trade in the city of Baltimore, but while we could have picked the shadowy Avon Barksdale or his ruthless right-hand man Stringer Bell, for us the most sinister gangster is the one we find out the least about. So little is known about The Greek that we don't even learn his real name or anything about his backstory. He even reveals at one point that he's not actually Greek, but the precious little that we do know about him is enough to mark him out as one of the show's most ruthless villains. Preferring to listen in quietly to meetings with rivals and partners alike, hiding in plain sight, The Greek has fingers in many pies and is known to run a human trafficking operation in addition to masterminding the supply of drugs to those running Baltimore's narcotics business. The Greek cares about one thing and one thing alone: money. Get in the way of him making it and you're likely to find yourself missing your head an both hands – a preferred method of mutilation that helps avoid the identification of his victims. Barksdale is ruthless, for sure, but The Greek is as cold as they come.
From classic films like Get Carter and The Long Good Friday to more recent outings such as Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels and Sexy Beast, there has been no shortage of British films about gangsters, but while American TV shows like The Wire and Boardwalk Empire are well represented in terms of British acting talent, for whatever reason it seems that television shows on the same subject are still something of a rarity in the UK. That's partly what has made Peaky Blinders so refreshing. The story of the Birmingham gangs who ran part of the criminal underworld is still fairly well-known in their Midlands stomping ground, but not so much further afield. Tommy Shelby may be a fictionalised version of the real gangland bosses running an empire based on illegal gambling and smuggling, but Cillian Murphy's portrayal of this former war hero turned crime lord is as menacing as anything we've seen on British shores and creator Steven Knight deserves credit fro bringing the Peaky Blinders' story to a wider audience with a show that holds its own against its American counterparts.
As one of the most notorious gangsters in America's history, Al Capone needs little introduction and while he's been depicted in various ways on TV before – including an excellent honorary mention for Neville Brand in the 1950s series The Untouchables – our favourite has to be Steven Graham's portrayal of the notorious Chicago mob boss in Boardwalk Empire. Graham perfectly captures the volatile and unpredictable nature of Capone during his reign over the prohibition-era mob in the windy city, and while Nucky Thompson is clearly the star of the show, it's Capone that comes across as the man to fear.
You could hardly draw up a list of TV gangsters without mentioning The Sopranos, and even though this is a show packed with brilliant characters, it's hard to look past the boss of them all. For eight years, James Gandolfini's head of of the New Jersey mob enraptured audiences and even though we could easily have picked several others from the show's cast of nefarious villains – especially Paulie 'Walnuts' Gualtieri and Ralph Cifaretto – Tony Soprano is the boss for a reason. Often brutal and ruthless, but more human than many Mafiosi depicted on TV, Tony Soprano is the embodiment of the modern gangster trying to navigate the tricky path between traditional values and modern life, which makes him one of the most compelling TV gangsters in recent memory.