In the movies, when good guys get mixed up in drugs, it’s a recipe for disaster. And while that’s the basic drive of both Sleepless Night and El Narco, one does it on a very small scale with big results and the other does it on a huge scale with lesser results.

Sleepless Night, which just got purchased by Warner Bros. for a remake, is a French action film about two police officers who moonlight as drug enforcers and the madness that happens over the course of one night when they lose their merchandise. El Narco is a controversial Mexican gangster film about a failed middle age American immigrant who is forced to join an organized crime family because it’s the only work available. One of these films is a best of the year contender. The other is a solid, but slightly empty, attempt at the crime genre. Read which is which and more after the jump.

Sleepless Night has the twists and turns of a Guy Ritchie movie, wrapped in the best episode of 24 ever, enclosed in a massive French night club. Two police officers spend their nights on the other side of the law, robbing people of drugs and what not for extra cash. When a package goes missing, one of the officers is forced to reveal himself because the drug boss kidnaps his son. From there, director Frederic Jardin does not provide a calming moment in the entire film. It begins with a huge action set piece, brings it back a notch to set up the story, then just keeps turning up the volume as our anti-hero maneuvers his way in, out and around the nightclub like it is a techno labyrinth. And while Jardin’s plot twists are similar in surprise to Snatch or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, they’re presented in a much more gritty, raw and realistic style. You feel as if you are the main character himself, right down to the bloodied sports coat. If tense, exciting action that is logical, economical and incredibly well-done is your thing (and why wouldn’t it be?) you are going to love Sleepless Night.

/Film Rating – 9 out of 10

From a purely plot-oriented standpoint, El Narco is what Goodfellas would have been like if it was set in Mexico and Henry Hill became a gangster in his 40s. Luis Estrada‘s film, however, lacks the kinetic energy of Scorsese’s masterpiece and we’re left with a by the numbers Mexican set mob movie that only elevates itself when things get personal.

Benny Garcia moved to America when he was a teenager but, 20 years later, is forced back to Mexico for reasons unknown and finds it a different place. His brother and many of his friends are dead, and Benny feels organized crime is the only way to get ahead. It works for a while but as he gets deeper and richer, things get worse and worse.

Estrada is obviously making a statement about Mexico with El Narco, which is why distributors there were wary of the film. (Though it did go on to be Mexico’s #2 film at the box office in 2010.) And while it comes across, the film’s story never justifies the sentiment. Benny is a great character and his struggle is a familiar, entertaining one – gangster fans will really enjoy the film – but it never quite rises above its basics. Those basics though – good story, character, twists, etc. – remain very solid. El Narco might lack the stylistic elements to put it in an elite category, but it at least holds a place alongside other modern gangster films like A Prophet and Animal Kingdom.

/Film Rating – 7 out of 10

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About the Author

Germain graduated NYU's Tisch School of the Arts Cinema Studies program in 2002 and won back to back First Place awards for film criticism from the New York State Associated Press in 2006 and 2007.

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