'El Chapo & Sean Penn: Bungle in the Jungle': TV Review

Sean Penn and El Chapo shaking hands - H 2016
Courtesy of ABC News
Nothing to see here, please disperse.

Reelz Channel's hastily made documentary is little more than shoddily reported trash.

Like Saturday Night Live character Stefon's favorite New York City hot spots, the story of Sean Penn and El Chapo has everything: a fierce drug lord, multiple prison breaks, a lusty telenovela star, secretive international travel, scurrying international authorities, several Oscar winners and a self-serving, ethically repugnant, 10,000-word magazine article.

Someday, with all of these elements in place, this is a saga that will make a great documentary and probably a fun fact-is-stranger-than-fiction feature.

Not content to wait, Reelz Channel will premiere a shoddy, woefully sourced 44-minute scandal-baiting thing on Thursday night. I hesitate to call it a "film" or a "documentary," and it's certainly not a "news report," but at least it can't be denied that El Chapo & Sean Penn: Bungle in the Jungle has a good title.

Bungle in the Jungle is the sort of project that can be announced without Reelz mentioning a director or producers attached, because it's best slotted in between episodes of Gangsters: America's Most Evil and Celebrity Damage Control in the network's rotation of tawdry shows that sound like more successful shows on other networks.

Look, we all had to understand that if anybody associated with this story was going to go public, they were going to do it on 60 Minutes or to Alex Gibney — or Oliver Stone, implicated tenuously here, would do it himself in a feature. So it isn't shocking that Stone, Sean Penn, Kate del Castillo and, of course, the reincarcerated El Chapo are missing here. But it's almost hilarious, though really quite sad, how third-hand and fourth-hand the sourcing is. Nobody associated with Rolling Stone or with American or Mexican law enforcement is on hand, nor is there a single identity-distorted member of a drug cartel. Nobody is on-camera who was at the meeting in the mountains of Sinaloa, nor even anybody who saw or heard anything directly leading up to the meetings or after the meeting. The closest the documentary comes to Penn is a random former assistant named Tyrel Ventura, the closest we get to del Castillo is "friend" Vance Owen and the closest we get to El Chapo is comedian Paul Rodriguez, who is described as a "relative," with no clarification at all on the nature of that relationship and no insinuation that they have even an iota of a connection.

One of the juiciest tidbits in Bungle in the Jungle, a story that's already getting at least some play, is the claim that Stone was ready to pay $6 million for El Chapo's life rights, a piece of information read only by the narrator and sourced as "word on the boulevard."

There's so little happening in Bungle in the Jungle that the first 20 or so minutes are dedicated to recapping Penn and El Chapo's biographies making connections that don't even rise to the "Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy and Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln" level of coincidence. To wit, El Chapo born in a town called La Tuna and Sean Penn born near, um, Tuna Canyon. And in 1985, El Chapo viciously moved to consolidate his control over a drug cartel, while that was also the year Sean Penn married Madonna. Oh. These spectacular parallel insights are joined together with edits often accompanied by the sound of a paparazzi flashbulb, the sort of technique that's just one star-wipe away from aesthetic perfection.

When it comes to character references, Bungle in the Jungle offers Maria Conchita Alonso calling her Colors co-star Penn an asshole for his various questionable political dealings and that aforementioned former assistant insisting he is not, in fact, an asshole. When it comes to El Chapo, nobody seems to have more insight than a bail bond agent named Raquel, who says things about El Chapo, but never indicates how well she knows him, if at all.

Other than identifying several of Penn and del Castillo's travel companions as Stone's occasional producers, Bungle in the Jungle knows nothing about the meeting beyond what Penn himself has already written or told Charlie Rose, so people can just tut-tut about what the quid pro quo must have been and The Wrap's Sharon Waxman can just rend her garments over Rolling Stone's journalistic debasement in the whole affair.

Either you'll learn nothing new from Bungle in the Jungle, or you're learn new things, but have no way of proving that what you just learned was even close to the truth. Either way, if you have no clue where to find Reelz in your cable lineup, El Chapo & Sean Penn: Bungle in the Jungle isn't a reason to seek it out.

Premieres: Thursday, March 10, 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT (Reelz)