'ZeroZeroZero': TV Review

Beautifully shot, but frustratingly limited on character.
3/6/2020

Amazon's new look at the international drug trade is familiar stuff, but globe-trotting cinematography and performances by Andrea Riseborough and Dane DeHaan help it stand out.

Thanks to the relative decline in the legal and medical procedural, I lack the TV-earned confidence that I could litigate a case or perform surgery. After years of watching shows like Narcos, Breaking Bad and The Wire (plus movies like Traffic), however, I'm utterly convinced that I could operate at least a small drug empire.

At this point, few businesses have been depicted as often with the multitiered nuance that showrunners have dedicated to the ins and outs of the narcotics field, which for some reason has lent itself better than most to a top-down analysis of production, distribution and consumption.

That's probably why Amazon's new drama ZeroZeroZero rarely feels all that revolutionary even if its approach — multiple storylines across several continents with an ensemble of dozens of characters speaking many languages — would surely be innovative if the corporate focus were on, say, grapes. Genre familiarity may make ZeroZeroZero less fresh, but it remains quite watchable, if you can ignore its vaguely nihilistic streak, thanks to a good cast, confident direction and cinematography that's really quite stunning at times.

Adapted by Stefano Sollima, Leonardo Fasoli and Mauricio Katz from the book by Robert Saviano, ZeroZeroZero has its focus particularly on the drug trade between Mexico and the Italian organized crime syndicate known as 'Ndrangheta. Adriano Chiaramida plays Don Minu, an aging 'Ndrangheta boss whose ability to maintain his power may hinge on a hefty shipment of cocaine arriving from Mexico. Producing conflict on that side of the equation is Manuel (Harold Torres), a cold-eyed soldier in the Mexican army with plans to use military precision and vicious tactics to upend the corrupt local infrastructure.

Uniting the two groups are the brokers, New Orleans-based shipping family the Lynwoods, led by business-first patriarch Edward (Gabriel Byrne) and chip-off-the-old-block daughter Emma (Andrea Riseborough), with sheltered son Chris (Dane DeHaan) getting unexpectedly pushed into the fray.

Over eight episodes, directed by Sollima, Janus Metz and Pablo Trapero, the three groups engage in a high-body-count war that travels from New Orleans to Monterrey to Calabria to Casablanca and features enough double-crossing that I probably stopped caring around halfway through.

Narratively, ZeroZeroZero borders on mechanical. Each episode has to weave together the three storylines, rarely with grace or clear continuity, and each episode contains a point where everything goes into slow-motion briefly and queues up a flashback, sometimes adding illumination and occasionally just playing like a gimmick.

It doesn't help, though it may be intentional, that particularly on the Italian and Mexican sides of the story, the characters are fairly mechanical as well. I can accept that some of that is probably a "cogs in the machine" approach, but other than the few primary figures — Don Minu, his wormy grandson Stefano (Giuseppe De Domenico) and Manuel — the supporting characters rarely have names and they definitely don't have personality traits and even those main characters are limited. Manuel has a devotion to a revivalist church, which barely pays off, and otherwise the character might as well be a robot. Stefano has a wife and son whose names might as well be "Woman Prop" and "Child Prop." Don Minu gets tremendous mileage from Chiaramida's consummate gravitas, but I couldn't tell you a single detail about the character.

They're all prepared to kill each other at a moment's notice and I guess the inference is that if these people wipe each other off the map collectively, another identical group of factotums would take their place, which makes it hard to care one way or the other and renders the series' frequent bloodshed affectless. I lost track of whether ZeroZeroZero was getting off on the hollow violence — there's a whole lot of torture and maiming here — or is about people who get off on hollow violence.

By default, your sympathies go to the Lynwoods, which isn't in any way deserved. Edward cares mostly about money and has raised Emma to follow in his footsteps. Riseborough gives a performance of Swinton-esque inscrutability and upending of gender roles, peaking in the eventful finale. Because he may be the series' only character with a clear secondary motivation that isn't financial — he has the genetic markers for Huntington's disease and he's begun to show symptoms — Chris is almost the hero here and DeHaan's performance is intense and wired in a way nothing around him can match. The Lynwoods are still complicit and parasitic and the nods to make you care about them are manipulative.

Much of this, I know, sounds negative. It's still easy to get caught up in the churn of this elaborate drug deal, especially when each episode is sparked by well-executed car chases and shootouts that punctuate what is otherwise a strangely contemplative tone (given that not a single one of the characters is introspective enough for contemplation).

Maybe it's here that the directors and cinematographers Paolo Carnera and Romain Lacourbas are the ones doing the contemplating? ZeroZeroZero was shot on location through Italy, Mexico, Senegal and Morocco and each episode is one breathtaking shot after another, whether the natural beauty of the Calabrian coast or the African desert or the industrial scale of a vast shipping yard or container-stacked freighter. And it does it all without the somewhat rudimentary use of photographic filters that Traffic and Narcos have made into just another convention.

The distinctive cinematography is aided by the score from Mogwai that's unexpectedly dreamy in a world that's more of a nightmare. This is a story in which every principal in the drug trade has apparently used their ill-gotten gains to purchase a residence on an incline, overlooking the civilians they obviously believe themselves to be above. The actual end-users are entirely absent in ZeroZeroZero, because as disposable as those in power might be, the consumers are invisible to them.

Even if ZeroZeroZero is a variation on a story you've probably seen ad nauseam and I wish it did just a bit more to differentiate itself, at least it doesn't look like the previous versions — and if you're doing research to start your own foray into the powder racket, that can't hurt.

Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Dane DeHaan, Gabriel Byrne, Giuseppe De Domenico, Adriano Chiaramida, Harold Torres

Creators: Stefano Sollima, Leonardo Fasoli and Mauricio Katz, from the book by Robert Saviano

Premieres Friday, March 6 on Amazon Prime Video.