Vice founder Shane Smith takes viewers on a romp through Mexico for a study of narco cinema, a genre of filmmaking also called "video homes" in reference to their straight-to-video distribution. B-grade exploitation flicks that glamorize the Mexican drug trade with big action, low-budgets and an emphasis on guns, sex and trucks, narco cinema is an impressive feat of low-budget guerilla filmmaking. Written as they go, shot within weeks on shoestring budgets and utilizing practical resources as often as possible, video homes pull in huge profits compared to their minimal production costs.
Smith visits the homes of narco cinema stars Mario Almada and Jorge Reynoso to learn more about the real-life influences on narco cinema. Almada, who claims to have starred in more films than anyone else alive today, is known as the John Wayne of narco cinema and typically plays the authority figure, whereas Reynoso is regularly cast as the staple cartel badass. The two men address rumors that the cartel is responsible for funding narco cinema productions, essentially confirming suspicions while betraying a sense of caution for fear of drawing negative attention from the wrong people.
The success of narco cinema relies heavily on the drug lord characters that resonate strongly with audiences who celebrate them as success stories of Mexicans working their way out of poverty. (It is reported that video homes earn 82% of viewership as only 18% of the Mexican population can afford to attend screenings in theaters.) The cartel leaders are painted as Robin Hood types who heroically return their wealth to the community.
Demonstrating the stark contrast between the absurdist fun of narco cinema and the inherent danger of the actual drug trade, Smith takes to the streets to costume himself for a narco cinema role. He bedecks himself in a cowboy hat, frilled jacket and alligator boots and hires a Mariachi band to sing a song hailing him as the El Jefe of a fictional cartel, only to reveal that 25 musicians were killed over the course of three years for singing about the wrong people.
Smith's crew hits Tijuana to participate in the filming of two sequels to Chrysler 300, a wildly popular narco cinema title. They happen to land on Mexican Independence Day and find themselves in the biggest party of the year, a fitting environment for the men of Vice. Once again highlighting the rivaling atmospheres of celebration and terror, the antics in Tijuana are contrasted by news of the Zetas cartel lobbing grenades into the celebration of another town, killing eight people and injuring hundreds.
As the Vice team gets involved in production, Smith and company are in their element playing with guns and performing alongside strippers and prostitutes cast directly from the local cathouse. The thrill of the fictionalized drug trade and off-the-cuff production style are undeniably entertaining, but the sobering reality of the actual Mexican drug trade continues to permeate their fun and debauchery.