‘Narco-Saints’ review: strong performances can’t save this predictable crime drama

Netflix’s new Korean thriller about a drug lord masquerading as a pastor doesn’t deliver the intensity it promises

Narco-Saints falls into the same trap that many other shows about drugs, guns, and money do – they fixate on that deadly trifecta and the shock value it offers, becoming disappointingly formulaic along the way. Despite its intriguing ‘based on a true story’ tag and an excellent cast, Narco-Saints is still playing the same game at the same table.

Our protagonist is Kang In-gu, a dissatisfied businessman played by Ha Jung-woo, who leaves South Korea for the South American nation of Suriname with his best friend to start a business. There, heruns into Chen Jin (Chang Chen), a Chinese gangster who threatens to kill him unless In-gu pays him an absurd amount of money every month. But he meets Pastor Jeon Yo-hwan (Hwang Jung-min), who miraculously convinces Chen Jin to back off… only for Kang to be imprisoned after export authorities find cocaine in his shipments.

In jail, he learns from Choi Chang-ho (Park Hae-soo), the leader of the US Branch of the National Intelligence Service, that Jeon has been at the nexus of a sinister drug-trafficking ring for the past 18 years. Choi wants Kang to work with Jeon to expand his drug-ring to the US, where the NIS will swoop in and arrest him – because, apparently, the NIS has no other way of nabbing a drug lord than sending a businessman on a suicide mission.

Yoo Yeon Seok Jo Woo-jin
(L to R) Yoo Yeon-seok as David Julio Park, Jo Woo-jin as Byun Kitae. Credit: Cho Wonjin / Netflix

The men of Narco-Saints do deliver. We make that distinction because, sadly, the show does not know what to do with the women they have cast, so they end up as tropes with insignificant contributions to the storyline: the anxious wife (Choo Ja-hyun as Park Hye-jin, In-gu’s wife), the competent team member (Kim Si-hyun as Si-hyeon) or the sexy right-hand vixen (Lee Bong-ryun as Deaconess Jung).

The three male leads, on the other hand, get ample opportunity to flex their acting muscles, not least Ha Jung-woo as Kang In-gu. From a poor nobody to a small-time businessman, to a naive trader in a foreign country and then a double-agent trying to save his own skin, Ha brilliantly balances out Kang’s grit with his humanity. In a show that gets quite predictable at times, Ha is the dark horse: Kang In-gu may be out of his depth, but he knows how to weaponise aspects of his personality to get out of sticky situations. As Kang, Ha is sometimes witty, sometimes hapless, sometimes desperate – but always burdened with the knowledge of the dangerous mission he’s on.

As Pastor Jeon, Hwang Jung-min is unassuming but still unnerving, comfortably switching between his two personas. He borrows Biblical language to explain the drug-trafficking business – comparing meth to “Satan’s phlegm” and calling cocaine “a natural blessing from God” – almost as if he truly believes himself a deity of these two domains.

Completing this trio is Park Hae-soo’s Choi Chang-ho, the calculated NIS agent striving to bring Pastor Jeon down – even if he has to blindside his allies to do it. We’ve already seen his talents in Squid Game, and here Park plays the seemingly straitlaced Choi with a measured cunning that makes you question whose side he’s on.

As an unsuspecting civilian being pulled into an international goose-chase, Kang is always one slip-up away from a painful death, no matter his quick thinking and even quicker words. Despite this tension, though, you won’t sit through Narco-Saints holding your breath and clenching your fists. Despite the cruelty and ruthlessness of its world, the show never becomes as intense as it promises. With plot twists visible from a mile away and stakes that never quite get high enough, Narco-Saints is a one-time watch at best and disappointing at worst.

Narco-Saints is now streaming on Netflix.

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