Netflix's Docuseries 'Cocaine Cowboys' Is a Wild Ride Through Miami Drug Lore
Sex, drugs, and speedboats are only the beginning in the latest Florida-based chronicle of vice from filmmaker Billy Corben.
Almost every week, Netflix unloads a new shipment of true-crime documentaries to an audience that can't get enough. After the success of early miniseries like Making a Murderer and The Keepers, the streaming giant rapidly increased its supply of confessional-filled movies and newsclip-packed shows to meet the growing demand. Occasionally, when watching a show like the recent Night Stalker or Sons of Sam, two bloated series that revisited headline-generating cases from the past, you can feel the supply chain shaking under the pressure created by pumping out so much product. The formula that was once so addicting becomes stale.
At first glance, Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami, the latest project about the Florida drug trade from filmmaker Billy Corben, looks like another victim of Netflix's tendency to turn a fascinating, worthy story into an overburdened, repetitive multi-episode narrative. After all, Corben already made 2007's wildly entertaining Cocaine Cowboys and 2008's sequel Cocaine Cowboys 2, and neither runs longer than two hours. (Corben's acclaimed 30 for 30 The U and his underrated New York City nightclub chronicle Limelight also accomplish a lot within the conventional feature length structure.) Does anyone really need a six episode deep-dive on a topic that's already been so thoroughly worked over and explored in such detail?
The first episode of the series provides a definitive answer: Yes, you're going to want to jump in the speedboat, strap in, and see where the waves take you. In telling the story of Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta, a pair of Cuban drug kingpins who also went by "Los Muchachos," Corben dissects the familiar "rise-and-fall" criminal trajectory with dark humor, moral clarity, and a warm humanity that eludes so many true-crime documentaries of the moment. Falcon and Malguta only appear in archival video footage and stray photos of them living high on the hog in Miami—collecting trophies, attending galas, and, eventually, exiting court rooms—but the interviews with their associates, along with the many attorneys involved in their legal battles, paint the type of complicated, nuanced portrait that actually lends itself to multiple hours of reflection.
Beginning in the '80s and stretching into the '90s, Falcon and Magluta established a network that trafficked an estimated 75 tons of cocaine worth $2 billion. They used speed boats, airplanes, and any other fast vehicle available to evade the authorities and build their empire. Early on, the series makes a point of including an interviewer noting that the pair were known as "non-violent drug dealers," the type of operators who favored brisk, efficient work over bloodshed and gunplay. As the series continues and pressure builds, that initial benevolent image becomes more complicated. The toothy grins turn to sweaty grimaces. The bright lights dim. The bodies pile up.
According to a recent interview with Corben in The Guardian, the saga of Falcon and Malguta was first story he wanted to tell about the Miami drug trade, but in the early '00s the "wounds were still fresh" and "the story hadn’t ripened yet to the point where everybody had some hindsight and some distance and was ready to talk about it.” He was smart to wait. That sense of perspective, an awareness of the passage of time and the weight of history, lend the interviews, particularly the stories from Magluta's ex-girlfriend Marilyn Bonachea, a poignancy and depth that you won't find in many of the slicker, grisly drug war documentaries that pile up on streaming platforms and cable channels. Similarly, some of the attorneys, like battle axe defense lawyer Albert Krieger, speak with a rare candor about the roles they played. Staging so many of the interviews in front of walls of appropriately kitschy glass bricks helps, too.
From its Pitbull theme song to its neon graphics, the series simply moves, vibrating with the aspirational energy and the intoxicating excess of the Miami Vice era. Even certain aesthetic choices that might scan as played-out or clichéd, like the incorporation of footage from iconic crime films like The Untouchables or The Usual Suspects, manage to mostly work because they help explain very specific twists and turns in the plot. At the same time, the series displays an interest in the granular details of criminal bookkeeping and the intricacies of jury selection that you often only find in the pages of a high-end legal thriller or a fastidious New Yorker article.
That delicate balance between the gloss and the grit is Corben's specialty. Given six episodes to work over, he takes advantage of the format by burrowing into specific aspects of the operation without losing sight of the larger story he's telling of greed, power, and ambition. As it draws to a close, the series resists the urge to make too many broad, sweeping claims about the social and political significance of the case, allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions about the justice system, the drug laws, and the American obsession with wealth. That show of restraint might be what separates Corben from so many of the oversized characters he chronicles. It's also part of what makes watching this particular show such a rewarding, thrilling experience.