Netflix releases a new batch of true-crime documentaries almost every week to a hungry audience. Following the popularity of early miniseries such as Making a Murderer and The Keepers, Netflix quickly ramped up its supply of confessional films and news clip-heavy shows to suit rising demand. When you watch a drama like Night Stalker or Sons of Sam, two overblown series that rehashed headline-generating cases from the past, you can sense the supply chain trembling under the burden of pushing out that many goods. The once-intoxicating recipe has turned stale.
Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami, filmmaker Billy Corben’s latest production about the Florida drug trade, appears to be another victim of Netflix’s penchant to convert a compelling, worthwhile topic into an overcrowded, repetitive multi-episode narrative. After all, Corben directed the highly entertaining Cocaine Cowboys in 2007 and the sequel Cocaine Cowboys 2 in 2008, both of which are under two hours long. Is a six-episode deep-dive on a topic that’s previously been well explored necessary?
Yes, you’ll want to hop in the speedboat, buckle yourself up, and see where the water takes you, based on the first episode of the series. Corben dissects the familiar “rise-and-fall” criminal path with black humor, moral integrity, and warm compassion that eludes so many true crime documentaries of the moment.
Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta were two Cuban drug lords who went by the moniker “Los Muchachos.” Falcon and Malguta only appear in archival camera footage and a few stray pics of them living large in Miami—collecting prizes, attending soirees, and, eventually, exiting courthouses. The discussions with their affiliates and the many lawyers involved in their court cases paint a complex, nuanced portrait that lends itself to multiple hours of reflective thinking.
Falcon and Magluta formed a network that trafficked an estimated 75 tons of cocaine worth $2 billion between the 1980s and the 1990s. To elude the authorities and expand their dominion, they used speed boats, jets, and any other fast vehicle available. The series begins with an interviewer stating that the two were known as “non-violent drug traffickers,” meaning they preferred fast, efficient business over carnage and gunplay. That initial benevolent image becomes increasingly difficult as the series progresses and the pressure mounts. Sweaty grimaces replace toothy grins. The dazzling lights begin to fade. The bodies start to pile up.
According to a recent conversation with Corben in The Guardian, the Falcon and Malguta saga was the first story he wanted to tell about the Miami drug trade, but “wounds were still fresh” and “the story hadn’t aged yet to the point where everybody had some hindsight and space and was ready to talk about it” in the early 2000s. Waiting was a wise decision on his part. The interviews, notably those with Magluta’s ex-girlfriend Marilyn Bonachea, have a tenderness and depth that you won’t find in many of the slicker, gory drug war documentaries that pile up on streaming platforms and cable networks. Similarly, several of the lawyers, such as battle ax defense lawyer Albert Krieger, speak candidly about their responsibilities. It also helps to stage so many of the interviews in front of appropriately chintzy glass brick walls.
Corben lets the people involved share their stories. He gets incredible ones from all sides of this remarkable story, including felons, law enforcement agencies, and even a few jurors. The plot gets insane with jury stories in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before, including a fight in the jury room and multiple stories of juror bribery. The interviews have a revealing playfulness to them that gives the show its energy. One could argue that several of these professional criminals are almost too at ease. You wonder if you would be delighted by drug lords, but Corben and his team masterfully straddle the line where it doesn’t feel like he’s elevating the criminal scene.
It isn’t simply the criminals that are involved. By engaging with and spending nearly as much time with those on the other side of the law, including the lawyers who attempted to bring Maglut and Falcon down. Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami turns into a far more well-rounded project. The defense unit, which includes the brilliant Albert Krieger, also gets some great sound bites, but Marilyn Bonachea steals the show. She’ll be the one on everyone’s mind, a significant figure in the organization who kept it going until she felt betrayed by it.
The series moves, pulsating with the emotional energy and addictive excess of the Miami Vice era. Even visual choices that may seem worn or cliché, such as repurposing footage from classic crime films like The Untouchables were effective because they help explain very particular story twists and turns. Simultaneously, the series demonstrates an interest in the nitty-gritty of criminal accountancy and the complexities of jury selection that you’d expect to see only in a high-end legal thriller or a meticulous New Yorker story.
Corben excels at striking a delicate balance between gloss and roughness. Given six episodes to deal with, he makes use of the format by delving into various areas of the trade while remaining focused on the more important story of greed, power, and ambition he’s conveying. As the series comes to a climax, it resists the temptation to make too many big, sweeping generalizations about the case’s social and political significance, allowing viewers to draw their judgments about the judicial system, drug laws, and America’s fixation with money. Corben’s moderation may be what sets him apart from so many of the hulking characters he portrays. It’s also one of the things that makes viewing this Netflix special so enjoyable and thrilling.