Fair warning: You're going to want to set aide the better part of a day or two for ZeroZeroZero. This is one of those series where the story is told so damn well — and the episodes themselves are so masterfully pieced together — that you just have to keep going. No matter how brutal things get. No matter how bleak it may seem. If the characters somehow soldier on, so, too, must you.
The premise of ZeroZeroZero is simple. The head of an Italian Mafia family has been living in exile for years. He wants to get out of his hole in the ground and regain his former stature by getting 5,000 kilograms (that's about five tons) of cocaine into the system. That sort of buy requires a lot of capital, though, so he gets others to invest in the purchase. Like it was a sports team or something. The coke comes from a pair of brothers in Mexico. The two ends work through a family's shipping company out of New Orleans.
Buyers. Sellers. Brokers. The triad that makes up a major international, wholesale drug operation.
The series is based on the 2016 book by Roberto Saviano and was developed for Italian and French TV, plus Amazon. The result is eight gripping hours spanning three continents, countless deaths, double- and triple-crosses, and an unyielding need to get the deals done.
What's good: A gripping story that's at times hard to watch, but you just can't look away. The locations are epic, as is the acting of everyone on screen. And the Mogwai soundtrack is perfect.
What's not so good: Sometimes the brutality is just a little too much, but that's also the point.
The bottom line: At the end of the eight hours of ZeroZeroZero you'll have to ask yourself — is this sort of thing really going on around us all the time?
ZeroZeroZero — it gets its name from the purest form of Italian pasta flour, and slang for pure cocaine — is told from three points of view. There's the Italian crime family in Calabria, in Southern Italy. They're the ones buying the cocaine. There's the Mexican side of things, which is mostly about the specially trained soldiers who are tasked to combat the drug trade — but it's also about the Leyra brothers, who head up the cartel producing the drugs. And there are the Americans — the Lynwood family — who run a shipping business out of New Orleans that facilitates the movement of mass amounts of cocaine.
The brutality is just part of doing business.
Each episode does a masterful job of hooking you, and I didn't even pick up on it until I was a few hours in. We start with the elderly Don Minu (Adriano Chiaramida) meeting with other families and guaranteeing a major shipment of cocaine that will bring everyone a lot of money, and allow him to come out of hiding for the first time in years following a protracted mafia war. Don Minu's grandson, Stefano (Giuseppe De Domenico), is in the mix, but he's in it for revenge — Don Minu years ago killed his own son, Stefano's father, to stop the war. (Though we don't learn that reasoning until later in the series.)
Then we see the Mexican special forces surveilling a meeting between the Leyra brothers and Edward and Emma Lynwood (Andrea Riseborough, who you know from Birdman and Oblivion with Tom Cruise). They're the father and daughter with the shipping business who will make sure the cocaine (which is hidden at the bottom of cans of jalapeño peppers) makes it from Monterey to Gioia Tauro in Southern Italy, three weeks and 6,000 miles away. As the soldiers are about to close in on the kingpins, one of them quietly alerts someone on the Leyra's payroll. The dinner breaks up and the shooting begins. The Leyras and the Lynnwoods escape, but not before Edward Lynwood (Gabrielle Byrne) takes a round in the chest.
That's when time slows down, and we flash back — rewind, really — to get the whole storm on what's actually happening. It's a simple, subtle trick (and certainly not a unique one), but it's an effective device. You're roped in. Something bad is going to happen, and now you want to see what it is.
The Italian side is the trickiest of the three to follow. First Stefano wants to stop the shipment from ever making it to Italy, ensuring that his grandfather is disgraced once more an his new business partners will turn on him. (And in this world, that can mean waking up to find yourself being eaten alive by starving hogs.) Stefano is strong. He's clever. But maybe a little too clever and not experienced enough. He's working with the rival Curtiga family but quickly finds enemies on all sides. Don Minu is old but not naive. He sees what's coming and forces Stefano back to his family's side — at least until the Curtigas make it plenty clear that either the shipment does not make it to Italy, or Stefano will have to kill Don Minu himself. There's a lot of back-and-forth here, and a few too many characters to follow things easily (plus it's all in Italian). But it's intriguing as hell. Who's going to come out on top? Or at least lose less?
The Mexican side is brutal. No two ways about it. Manuel Contreras (Harold Torres) leads the squad of special forces. They hunt down and kidnap one of the Leyra's men and throw him in a hole for some good, old-fashioned shock-torture. But instead of hearing the screams, Manuel puts in his earbuds and takes in the teachings of an extremely religious podcast. It's maybe not his happy place, but he's doing evil in God's name, and this is how he copes. Ultimately they get the location of the dinner, where things start going down.
The ship full of cocaine leaves for Italy, and Manuel and his team are tasked with boarding it off the coast and stopping the drugs. There he finds Chris Lynnwood (Dane DeHaan), Emma's brother who's been kept out of the family business due to Huntington's Disease, which killed their mother and has secretly started to show in him. Chris stepped up, though, because his father ultimately died from the stress and shock of the attack at dinner, and someone has to make sure the shipment makes it to Italy. And Chris grew up on the large container ships, so he's suited for what's about to happen.
The Mexican commandos fastrope down to the ship, knock out Chris and warn the captain — a longtime friend of the Lynnwoods — that they need to shut down all tracking and disappear as they cross the Atlantic if they want to make it.
One problem with that, though: Stefano paid the captain 1 million Euro to make sure the shipment doesn't make it to Italy. How do you do that? Force an engine fire and abandon ship after knocking out Chris again. Except Chris knows these ships, remember? And he's somehow able to put out the engine fire himself and signal for help, ultimately ending up in Senegal, along with his wrecked ship and $60 million worth of cocaine hidden in the jalapeños. Emma flies in and they make their way across the Sarahah to Casablanca, getting caught up with ISIS along the way.
Meanwhile, Manuel and his crew — after killing their captain and saying to hell with the Mexican Army and getting some serious religious direction — decide to become the Leyras' dedicated paramilitary group. (They don't really give the brothers a choice in the matter.) They're ruthless and brutal. Mass executions to make a point seem routine. They recruit dozens of young men and train them as they were trained. (Maybe not as well, but well enough to be effective.)
But as is the case any number of times in ZeroZeroZero, strength isn't a one-way thing. Who has the upper hand at any given time depends on who's willing to go further. Who's able to see what's coming, or who's able to react the quickest. Who's willing to do whatever they have to do to ensure what needs to be done is done. And that's what's so incredible about the final scene of the series.
Manuel in one chair, a bloodbath left in his wake. Emma sits across from him, sandwiched between two bodies. If she blinked during the meeting — or as she twice walked through the courtyard strewn with bodies of men, women and children — I didn't see it. She simply completely the transaction, prepared for the next one, and went on her way.
The brutality — the death and destruction and transnational fuckery — is just part of doing business. It is the business. And for the three groups in ZeroZeroZero — the buyers, the sellers and the brokers — all that carnage is just a family thing.
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