No one knows Florida’s drug scene better than documentarian Billy Corben, who over the course of three Cocaine Cowboys features—as well as Screwball, his 2019 investigation into the Biogenesis scandal that embroiled Alex Rodriguez—has recounted wild tales of narcotized South Beach insanity with intensity and good humor. The director’s latest, Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami, thus returns him to familiar stomping ground. True to form, the six-part Netflix docuseries (premiering Aug. 4) is a bonkers saga of drugs, sex, murder and corruption, all of it connected with two speedboat racers who were eventually responsible for bringing into the United States 75 tons of cocaine—valued at $2.1 billion—during the 1980s.
Corben’s gift as a filmmaker is that he knows how to gleefully revel in scumbag escapades (and capture the uninhibited energy of his Miami milieu) while simultaneously refraining from excusing their misdeeds. Full of diagonal split-screens and transitional wipes, pastel colors, movie clips, pop songs, graphics and archival footage, his work strives to come on like a cocaine high. The fact that Pitbull contributes the opening-credits track for Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami—a typical gangster-glorifying number called “Blood Sport”—makes perfect sense, since Corben and Mr. Worldwide are kindred loud, flashy, unrepentant spirits. Both of them are adept at tapping into, and exploiting, the public’s love of criminal brashness, even if their fondness for such behavior doesn’t extend to actually condoning it.
Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami is the story of “Los Muchachos,” Sal Magluta and Willy Falcon, two Cuban immigrants and lifelong friends who in the late ’70s began selling cocaine as a side hustle. They soon fell in with Jorge Valdes, a local trafficking bigwig, and were swept up in Operation Video Canary, a federal sting that netted Sal and Willy 14 months behind bars. Thanks to endless appeals, however, they were out on bail and free to continue running drugs as usual, and when Jorge went to prison in 1980, he handed his empire over to Sal and Willy, who promptly used Jorge’s connections with Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel in Colombia to become kingpins and live the high life, including as competitive speedboat champions with their Seahawk Racing Team.
Sal and Willy’s crazy ride to top-dog status—and desire to maintain public profiles despite their criminal means of employment—is recounted with enthusiastic joviality by many of their amusingly nicknamed cohorts, including pilot Ralph “Cabeza” Linero, brother-in-law Pedro “Pegy” Rosello, and diminutive Juan “Recut” Barroso. Corben’s ability to get people to speak on the record about this madcap affair is second to none, as he also enlists the participation of Sal’s long-time girlfriend Marilyn Bonachea (who soon functioned as his bagman, and controlled his ledger), his and Willy’s various high-powered (and morally dubious) defense lawyers, and the assistant U.S. attorneys—led by Christopher Clark and Pat Sullivan—who sought, for years, to put the duo behind bars for their underworld operation. Aside from Sal and Willy themselves, as well as Willy’s brother Gustavo “Taby” Falcon, who went on the run for two-plus decades, just about everyone who’s anyone chats candidly, and continuously, in this docuseries.
Those first-person accounts do much to enhance the giddy up-close-and-personal verve of Corben’s series, which only loses a bit of steam during its last two episodes, thanks to a narrative that segues away from the early thrills of Sal and Willy’s smuggling to their ensuing attempts to evade prosecution and conviction. That said, there’s rarely a moment when Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami isn’t madly entertaining, given that its subjects continued to find new ways to extricate themselves from what appeared to be inescapable predicaments. Be it Sal skipping bail in California and returning to Miami to continue racing speedboats—much to the shock of a Los Angeles sheriff who later spotted him on ESPN—or their efforts to undermine a federal trial, the pair prove fascinating real-life variations on Al Pacino’s Scarface.
Though much is made about Sal and Willy’s non-violence, Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami ultimately reveals the former’s homicidal self-preservation instincts. Facing a surefire prosecutorial case against them, Sal and Willy had their lawyers publish (in legal and prison magazines!) a veritable “hit list” of federal witnesses, many of whom were quickly assassinated. Moreover, despite having their narcotics assets frozen, they found a means of circumventing the law and using those illicit funds to pay for their expensive council. Understanding that wasn’t enough to secure their exoneration, they then also bribed three jurors to swing the verdict in their favor—a scandal that compelled prosecutors to carry on a subsequent investigation to indict the on-the-take jurors and use them against Sal and Willy.
There are so many unbelievable twists in Sal and Willy’s legal ordeal that it’s hard not to come away from Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami feeling some despair about the incompetence of the American judicial system, especially when it comes to juries, who are apparently as malleable as they are dim. That brazen drug-runners like Sal and Willy could convince anyone of their innocence, regarding almost anything they were accused of doing, is borderline unfathomable. Nonetheless, employing an electrically edited mix of news segments, police surveillance footage, and other archival material, Corben’s documentary strikes just the right balance between exulting in their daring exploits and painting a convincing portrait of their incontrovertible guilt (and horridness)—a have-it-both-ways approach that turns many of his speakers’ self-justifications and woe-is-me commentary into the height of hilarity.
Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami’s upfront and unapologetic enjoyment of these individuals (and their astonishing conduct) is as refreshing as its concurrent recognition that they all deserved what they got. Sal and Willy’s story ends like almost every other organized crime tale. Even so, Corben delivers plenty of surprises along the way, including a final jaw-dropping bombshell about Pegy’s most recent run-in with the law that confirms—contrary to Jorge’s post-prison reinvention as a self-help preacher—another familiar, depressing truism: some people never learn.