Narco-Saints hardly reinvents the slightly-true drug-kingpin wheel, and that remains one of Netflix’s most well-greased, but it’s nonetheless a very polished and highly-watchable version of the formula.
This review of Netflix’s Narco-Saints season 1 is spoiler-free.
The word narco has been around for a long time, but in recent years, thanks largely to the success of Narcos and Narcos: Mexico, it has become synonymous with two things — wide-ranging slightly-true stories about drug kingpins, and Netflix. The South Korean show Narco-Saints isn’t using the term by accident. It is — all together now — a wide-ranging slightly-true story about a drug kingpin.
But saints? That’s a new one. And deliberately anachronistic. How can a narco be a saint? How does a man of faith justify material pursuits and all the dodgy things one is required to do on that journey? This religious component, facile though it might be, is the primary way in which this largely very familiar show attempts to carve out a specific niche for itself in one of the most popular and enduring subgenres.
Here’s the funny thing — across six episodes, each running just over an hour, Narco-Saints doesn’t really succeed in carving out that niche for itself. And yet I don’t think it matters. It’s such a slick, watchable version of this specific type of show that its failure to do anything new or original scarcely matters. Come for gory, high-stakes drug trafficking and murder against a tropical backdrop, and that’s exactly what you’ll get. Did you want anything more?
Here’s the general premise. Kang Ingu (Ha Jung-woo) is a businessman who watched his father work himself to death and finds himself in danger of doing the same trying to operate a karaoke bar and an auto garage to provide for his wife and their two children. Offered an opportunity by his best friend Eungsoo, the two of them head to the small but flagrantly corrupt South American nation of Suriname in order to make a giant profit on skate. The Surinamese people eat a lot of seafood, but not skate, which they throw back into the water because it’s ugly. Ingu and Eungsoo pay cents for the skate, stuff it into boxes, and ship it back to Korea, where it fetches a fine price. The plan is foolproof… until it isn’t.
Things go wrong in the usual way. Everyone in Suriname sees a profitable business and wants a hand in it, so Ingu and Eungsoo end up falling foul of Pastor Jeon (Hwang Jung-min), a seemingly well-meaning leader of the local Korean Christian church. After a betrayal and a brief prison sentence, Ingu finds himself as a double agent for the National Intelligence Service, working with Choi Changho (Park Hae-soo, late of Squid Game) to take down Suriname’s cocaine kingpin from within his operation.
The secret weapon of Narco-Saints is Ingu himself. Usually, an everyman in this type of situation is kind of a bumbling idiot — look no further than the protagonist of A Model Family, also a k-drama and also available to stream on Netflix, for a prime example of this archetype. But Ingu isn’t that. He’s smart and capable; a Judo expert mechanic, shrewd businessman, intelligent negotiator, and devoted family man. He isn’t impervious to bad decision-making and certainly not to physical repercussions, but he’s capable, and his capabilities make him compelling. It means that the script — credited to director Jong-bin Yoon and Sung-hui Kwon — doesn’t have to brainlessly walk him into peril just for the sake of tension-building. He knows what he’s doing, and we’re comfortable in his own ambition getting him into bother all on its own.
But about that “saints” thing. This isn’t a show that’s cursorily about religion; faith is actually rather integral to it, in how Pastor Jeon has consistently used religious rhetoric in order to accrue followers and justify his actions, in how Ingu only meets with the pastor by chance because his devout wife pushes him into attending church on a Sunday, in a lot of the rationalizations we see and hear for how people choose to live their lives. It’s also probably no accident that the show draws explicit parallels between religious devotion and outright drug addiction. Are Jeon’s followers true believers, or simply addicts looking for their next fix? Is there really any difference?
What all this amounts to beyond an admittedly fun surface-level novelty is… very little, truthfully. For the most part, Narco-Saints proceeds along very standard and familiar lines. There are close calls, standoffs, shootouts, grisly murders, and attempts to play both sides that invariably backfire. There are lush seaside vistas and expansive drug-money mansions. There are warring factions, eccentric hired goons, and lots of white powder stuffed into see-through packets. You know the drill. And this version of that routine is rather expertly-produced in a lot of ways.
Ultimate you can’t argue with what works, and Narco-Saints undeniably works like gangbusters as a tantalizing and refreshingly digestible binge-watch proposition. We can lament it doesn’t amount to much more than that, though.