Before users are brought into play, the high stakes game of the cocaine business includes the buyers, sellers, and dealmakers. “ZeroZeroZero,” an addictive new international thriller from Amazon Prime, uses a big cocaine deal gone wrong as the spark for international drama that spans three continents. The cocaine was made in Monterrey, Mexico by the Leyra cartel, was set for transport by a boat owned by dealmakers from America (played by Gabriel Byrne, Andrea Riseborough, and Dane DeHaan), and was on its way to Italy where the crime syndicate will distribute it to the world. In the series’ first episode, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” director Stefano Sollima blows up this deal and hooks us in with Mafioso family drama, high-stakes chase scenes with Mexican cartel, and a dramatic shootout in the climax. All the while, everyone's aspirations are established, along with a disturbing sense of what they'll risk to get what they want.
Adapted from the book by Roberto Saviano, “ZeroZeroZero” tells these different stories in alternating big chunks; sometimes the arcs will intertwine (and lead to a flashback) and sometimes an arc will be off on its own for a while. It helps keep the stories focused, and helps you keep track of most of the characters who might suddenly die—the show is primed for attentive viewing even more than binge-viewing, but you’ll want to follow its eight hour-long episodes to the end either way. I recommend doing so in doses, even though the show is held together by so many great twists that you might find yourself just watching one episode after the next.
The weakest of the three storylines belongs to the Americans, and it’s telling that the story could still thrive on its own were “ZeroZeroZero” chopped up into three different movies. Andrea Riseborough stands out with in her performance as Emma Lynwood, the older sister (and daughter to Gabriel Byrne's Edward) trying to keep up the Lynwood family drug deal; her presence is shown to be an abrasive break from the very gendered roles of drug dealing, where Mafiosos refuse to get women involved, and the cartels are shown to put nearly-nude women to work to cut the cocaine. Like many people in this saga she can disappear and reappear from the events, but Riseborough is one of the most stable dramatic forces, working through a bizarre adventure that takes her and her brother Chris (Dane DeHaan) to Senegal and Morocco, where her unblinking management skills prove necessary in trying to keep the deal alive. DeHaan's Chris is a bit more unwieldy, especially with a backstory of a family disease that has him frantically trying to not lose his prescriptions in the process, and eventually tearing up rooms and screaming in bouts of capital-A Acting.
Far more subtle is the story involving the the Italians, who have their own bubbling drama that rises to the surface. The series’ penchant for gorgeous, extra wide shots of each story’s horizon are the best here when detailing the peaceful cliff sides and small villages that Don Minu (Adriano Chiaramida) has right outside his underground bunker, where he has been ruling in seclusion. Don Minu’s hotshot grandson Stefano (Giuseppe De Domenico) forces him out of hiding with the deal, especially as Stefano tries to take over; the two enact an old school vs. new school drama that works in its slow-burns, as they tactfully try to trap and kill the other. Each time that Don Minu, or Stefano, are lead somewhere unknown for a meeting, it feels like it could be their last moment, and the script’s reoccurring chorus of someone shifting allegiances especially pops here within the stakes of their gruesome family backstory.
This is revealed to be a business where you can either control or be controlled, and Manuel (a quietly insidious Harold Torres) embodies that with his own arc of rising from a church-going special forces sergeant nicknamed “Vampire” to aspirational Mexican cartel leader, who uses his professional training as a way to dominate Monterrey with his own army of men who are armed, fast, and loyal. Manuel’s arc takes “ZeroZeroZero” to some very dark, unrelentingly bleak places, but it too works as a study in evil, disconnected from the other two major stories. His story gets bigger and bigger as he starts to gain control, especially as Manuel builds his army with dozens of men training for war, and yet it always comes back to the wavering power within Torres’ stoic presence. Sometimes it’s the haunting look of a stone-cold, sociopathic tyrant, but in a few weaker dramatic beats its the look of someone whose established intricate conscience dissipates with each tactful act of brutality.
“ZeroZeroZero” takes the moral stance of a Martin Scorsese project, in that it stands back from such various degrees of evil, and lets God sort them out. To become enmeshed with such villains in a high-paced story can be invigorating at first, but it flags when the series proves to share little insight into its focal subject, as if withholding the massive research that clearly inspired the series and the book. Instead, though episode one features Gabriel Byrne’s cheesy voiceover getting didactic about on drug dealing, the show is more reliant on its confident narrative style, of endless betrayals and bids for power, all while trying to give some gritty coolness to the business at hand.
An expansive and bleak epic like this is rounded out by its filmmaking vigor, of which “ZeroZeroZero” has plenty of. Its action scenes can burst into some genuinely thrilling car chases, shootouts, and shocking kills, all which make some of its hokier visual missteps (like the way it always suddenly goes into dramatic slow motion to switch arcs) easier to forgive. “ZeroZeroZero” prevails in creating a rich world with its interconnected nature; its scope becomes a weapon itself, sobering you up with just how far everything goes. It’s the kind of thriller that makes such a deep impression because it can think big and small at the same time, uniting three gripping individual stories into one massive saga.
Whole season screened for review.