Colombia's mid-1990s drug barons get the "Scarface" treatment in "The Snitch Cartel," a snazzy, fast-paced pic that's nonetheless somewhat enslaved by the get-rich-quick and crime-doesn't-pay cliches that finally trip up the lowlife protags.

Colombia’s mid-1990s drug barons get the “Scarface” treatment in “The Snitch Cartel,” a snazzy, fast-paced pic that’s nonetheless somewhat enslaved by the get-rich-quick and crime-doesn’t-pay cliches that finally trip up the lowlife protags. Though psychological insight is beyond the film’s reach, helmer Carlos Moreno (the decidedly more arthouse “All Your Dead Ones”) is a pro at delivering surface pleasures of the sexy, energetic and shoot-‘em-up varieties. A cameo from Tom Sizemore as a DEA agent, and the true-story angle, could help convince a U.S. distrib to court urban and/or Latino auds, with smallscreen prospects looking especially good.

Based on a book and a local hit TV series that dramatized the same events, “The Snitch Cartel” looks at the drug trade in the mid-’90s, when Colombia produced 80% of the world’s cocaine. The story focuses on the North Valley cartel, which, together with the Medellin and Cali cartels, controlled much of the international cocaine trade. In a bid to stop the drugs from entering the huge American market, the United States signed an extradition agreement with Colombia, which meant all Colombian dealers would end up in American jails, and gave U.S. law-enforcement agencies such as the DEA more leeway in chasing the trade’s international big guns.

The film traces the rise of Martin (Colombian heartthrob Manolo Cardona) and his best bud, Pepe (Diego Cadavid), from small-time crooks to important dealers after they find a way to cut out their Mexican middlemen, personally delivering their goods by plane to the Bahamas and then by speedboat to Miami.

Their meteoric ascent comes with the requisite scenes of infighting and ostentatious displays of the bling-bling riches their newfound wealth can buy. Though the drug barons of the North Valley surround themselves with more than enough scantily clad women to shoot a “Shoah”-length rap video, Martin’s keener on courting his childhood crush, the stunning Sofia (Juana Acosta), as first seen in one of the film’s numerous temporal jumps.

But nothing is made of Martin’s apparently incongruous interest in a steady partner, and the film summarily dismisses Sofia, who has about as much character definition as she has body fat; a scene in which she is practically raped by Pepe is almost glossed over, and her presence at a shootout feels particularly contrived. The pic’s distaff disinterest also extends to Martin’s grandmother, the “other important woman” in his life, but who’s otherwise equally invisible, despite the casting of Mexican acting heavyweight Adriana Barraza in the role.

That said, the film(scripted by Luiso Berdeio, Juan Camillo Ferrand and Andres Lopez) never bores as it proceeds at breakneck speed through the events that finally end up giving the cartel its titular nickname. Sizemore is appropriately imposing as the DEA officer who tries to force the Colombians to accept his “suggestion” of becoming snitches, while Cardona and Cadavid have credible chemistry as the two opportunistic friends who quickly find themselves in a situation far beyond their control.

Widescreen lensing by Mateo Londono is slick and seemingly indebted to Steven Soderbergh, especially in its occasional use of almost monochrome color palettes. Sound and visual effects deliver the expected jolts.

The Snitch Cartel

Colombia-Mexico

Production

An Onceonce presentation and production. Produced by Manolo Cardona, Juan Carlos Caicedo, Juancho Cardona, Francisco Cardona, Alex Garcia. Directed by Carlos Moreno. Screenplay, Luiso Berdeio, Juan Camillo Ferrand, Andres Lopez, based on the book and TV series by Lopez.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Mateo Londono; editor, Jorge Macava; music, Carlos Siliotto; production designer, Jaime Luna; costume designer, Ximena Bessolo; sound (Dolby Digital), Carlos Lopera; visual effects supervisor, Alejandro Vazquez; casting, Jaime Correa. Reviewed at Palm Springs Film Festival (Awards Buzz), Jan. 7, 2013. Running time: 106 MIN.

With

Manolo Cardona, Juana Acosta, Diego Cadavid, Robinson Diaz, Julian Arango, Andres Parra, Tom Sizemore, Kuno Becker, Pedro Aremendariz Jr., Adriana Barraza. (Spanish, English dialogue)

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