Film Review – ‘Cocaine Cowboys’

     November 1, 2006

Reviewed by Andre Dellamorte

Push it to the Limit

Cocaine, as our esteemed and quite dead Poet Lauriat Richard James has informed us, is a hell of a drug. And it swept through America from the late 70’s through the eighties, and has returned to prominence in some hipster circles (though the early 21st century seems destined to be a culture of niches – you can’t say that there’s a new pot boom, or that ecstasy is on the upswing, people now just seem to do drugs within their circles if their circles do drugs, and will probably continue to until someone invents a new drug that could conceivably kill Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and the Olsen twins in one fell swoop) hitting hardest in New York, California and Florida – or at least it seems that way. Perhaps because they’re the big cities and you don’t have a Studio 54 in Grand Forks, ND, nor do people get photographed regularly in Grand Forks with coke spoons on faux gold chains. I cannot attest to what damage was done to those in the Dakotas during the coke boom years, though the ravages of coke can easily be seen in the deaths and death of careers of the rich and famous.

I mean, they nicknamed him Robert “Cocaine” Evans for a reason.

Much of the drug came from South America, and specifically Columbia, where most of the cartels rose out of. But the drug needed to find its way into the country, and that’s where Florida, with its large coast, and (at the time) lax security became the place to smuggle.

And that’s where Cocaine Cowboys comes in. Directed by Billy Corben, the film covers the growth of the industry in the 70’s and the fall of many members of the original gangs in the 80’s. It’s a fairly dense text and one hell of a ride. Jon Roberts was a night club owner from New York who moved out and got himself in a good position to be a smuggler. Working with pilot Mickey Munday (both interviewed), they helped move the business into a multi-million – and eventually multi-billion – dollar enterprise that created piles upon piles of cash that Roberts eventually took to burying in his yard. They were in on the ground floor, and their perspective helps put the expedient growth in perspective. And that money helped turn Miami from a sleepy town where old people went to die into a flash-and-cash city. Roberts speaks more to the glitz and fun side of the industry (they also interview his model ex-girlfriend), about spending his ill gotten gains on cars, and their operation, which progressed very smartly (their business decisions in smuggling are ingenious).

It also paints how these drug dollars made Miami into a cash-rich city, where few were asking where the money came from in recession times, and few twenty dollar bills didn’t leave coke residue. That is, until the high stakes world of the drug business became so prevalent that violence became an issue. And where the first part paints a portrait of the quick rise to success, the second half essays when the biz went violent. This section draws heaviest from criminal Jorge “Rivi” Ayala, who was part of an organization run by Griselda Blanco, who was known as a black widow that sometimes killed her partners and husbands on whims. She and her organization enjoyed being capital K criminals, and their violence spurred more.

As to be expected, with all that money and drugs around and nutty people who loved being gangsters, the violence escalated to the point that the law enforcement became troubled as the city had a hard time recruiting officers who were clean and/or sober. Numbers of cops were killed or on the take, and the city became engulfed in corruption and vice, which was eventually cleaned up to a point. And here’s where the Scarface connections come in. By all accounts the highly regarded Brian De Palma actually went light on the levels of violence and insanity that were taking place in the city. It got ugly all right, and though the film points to an end of the main members of the organization shown here, the victory is in many ways pyrrhic, as the drug still has its hooks in America as the industry is still making the billions. That though is left to another documentary.

For those weaned on Miami Vice, this is an eye opening portrait of the troubles the city was in at the time, and is absolutely riveting. With a score by Vice’s Jan Hammer, the biggest problem with the film is that the editing of it resembles the flash cutting of the current crop of docutainments that makes it seem more like a TV program on some celebrity (and it should be noted that the art of documentary filmmaking is on a perilous journey – much like modern cinema – to losing its cinematic sensibilities). That noted, the story is such a driving force in this piece that it more than makes up for its limitations of framing and cutting (and I will grant that there may be no other way to tell this story). But the impact this movie has is phenomenal, and it should be expected to produce at least a feature film on the subject matter in the next couple of years, while any crime film about the drug trade will more than likely sample details like they’re Girl Talk.

Magnolia Pictures are releasing the film, which has already opened in New York and Florida, and is expanding to California this Friday the 3rd (with more dates on the way). For a list of dates and theaters, check here

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