JON LAND’S TOP 9 BEST DRUG-CENTRIC MOVIES AND TV SHOWS
STRONG FROM THE HEART follows Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong as she wages her own personal war on drugs and fights to bring down the true power behind the opioid crisis. With its pending publication in mind, I wanted to revisit some of the best, most noteworthy, and iconic treatments of the drug world across the spectrum of film, books and television. What I found in making this list was the overriding theme that you don’t have to be an addict to have your life dominated and destroyed by drugs. Guess it all comes down to the great line from the Glen Frey song “Smuggler’s Blues”: It’s the lure of easy money, It’s gotta very strong appeal.
BREAKING BAD: In addition to being the best scripted series in television history, watching Walter White go from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde right before our eyes was one of the greatest transformations on any size screen that becomes a metaphor for the dangerous allure of drugs in general. His rise to a crystal meth manufacturer alternately being controlled by, and controlling, forces of the Mexican cartels was a wonder to behold from its first episode to the very last. The fact that the focus was on character more than drugs made that plot point even more effective.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION: William Friedkin’s masterful treatment of Robin Moore’s book deservedly won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Popeye Doyle. Inspired by the very real exploits of two New York City narcotics detectives who follow a chance encounter to the biggest drug bust in the nation’s history at the time, the film is remembered most for a car chase that distracts from the gritty brilliance of Doyle’s dogged pursuit of a drug distribution network that spans the entire globe. But in the end, he fails to get his man as the kingpin behind it all escapes, focusing hard and fast on the fact that money is power.
TRAFFIC: Steven Soderbergh’s gritty, grainy pseudo-documentary tells a series of interconnected tales linked by drugs and brilliantly toplined by Michael Douglas as the nation’s drug czar who learns his own daughter is a heroin addict. Soderbergh presents us with the drug world from every conceivable angle, stressing the hopelessness and futility of the War on Drugs we’re still fighting, and losing, twenty years after its release. A sobering indictment of both the hypocrisy and glad-handing that continue to fuel the drug world, including the pharmaceutical companies whose opioid products have killed hundreds of thousands.
BETTER CALL SAUL: This television prequel to Breaking Bad sets Jimmy McGill (aka Saul Goodman) on the same road Walter White took in his descent to hell. It’s much more cartel-centric than its better realized cousin, setting the drug war against characters at war with themselves. The high-end dealers themselves—from the Mephistophelian Gus Fring, to Tuco, to Hector and Lalo Saltamanca—steal every scene that Jonathan Banks’ Mike Ehrmantraut isn’t in. Their charisma is exceeded only by their ruthlessness and relentless pursuit of the power drugs can bring them, even as everything’s for sale including their own souls.
SICARIO: The thriller takes us murderously over the Mexican border to follow a clandestine operation to take down the Mexican drug trade through any means necessary, which essentially means the good guys trading in their white hats for black ones. Emily Blunt as an idealistic FBI agent learning how the world really works becomes our eyes into a world we not only can’t understand, we don’t want to. But it’s Benicio Del Toro, playing a man horribly wronged by the cartel unleashed to extract revenge, who steals the show as the film’s immoral center which is what it takes to survive in an immoral world. Such moral ambiguity encapsulates the drug world at its very heart.
PINEAPPLE EXPRESS: The laugh-out-loud, screwball antics of Seth Rogen and James Franco aside, this is the film that introduced us to weed culture on a mass level well before legalization was in the cards. The scenes of a massive grow operation presaged business as usual in Colorado today and, perhaps, the entire country before much longer. While played for laughs, the film lays waste to the notion of marijuana as a harmless drug, at least in terms of the multi-billion-dollar industry it was long before states started collecting taxes on it. Even though played for laughs, this film became a harbinger for the gradual legalization of marijuana nationwide and the abdication of long-held policy in favor of profit.
BLOW: Johnny Depp was never better than in his role as George Jung who, along with Pablo Escobar, helped fuel the cocaine boom of the 70’s and 80’s. The 2001 film preceded Breaking Bad by seven years in setting a character down the path of his own personal self-destruction. But it also serves as a brilliant exploration into the incredible money and power that was behind the Colombian cartels who pushed coke into the willing noses of millions of Americans and made thousands of dealers, both small and large, rich. The best of the lot when it comes to establishing drugs as a business, before American pharmaceutical companies mastered that effort.
MIAMI VICE: A show that changed television, and pop culture, forever kept us glued to our televisions every Friday night at nine o’clock for years. Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas play vice cops looking to snuff out drug-fueled crime in Miami, only to find more continually sprouting up like weeds. Centered around the glitz and glamour of an era fed by cocaine, the show was like a color-rich, psychedelic mind trip that created a lifestyle
of clothes and music perfect for the times and never to be repeated, pitting our stalwart undercover cops against master drug lords like Calderone and the Riviera brothers. Miami Vice taught us that in the drug wars you can just as easily win by losing, as lose by winning. And no matter how many drug dealers you put behind bars, there’s a long line waiting to replace them.
WHO’LL STOP THE RAIN: Based on Dog Soldiers, the late Robert Stone’s epic take on post-Vietnam America follows small-time drug dealers using tricks of the trade gleaned from Saigon in a world they’re clearly not ready for. Their business practices runs them afoul of major players in the drug world, metaphorically laying to rest the tangerine dreams of the hippy counter-culture. Made into the far less striking film Who’ll Stop the Rain starring Nick Nolte, Dog Soldiers introduced us to drugs as big business, putting an end to the Age of Aquarius forever. It was also one of the first treatments of the drug world that show the staggering costs it extracts on good people gone bad.