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Cocaine Cowboys

Dust off the white suit and pink bikini: We're going to Miami Beach, circa 1970s and '80s, where cocaine ruled the economy. The documentary Cocaine Cowboys tells you (more than) everything you wanted to know about Floridian gangsters awash in cocaine money.


Today's club-goers may not know that Miami, with its decadent skyline, was once America's most violent city, built up by the Carter and Reagan-era cocaine street wars. This Billy Corben-helmed documentary explains that with the volatile influx of Colombian cocaine and imprisoned Cuban refugees (fictionalized infamously in Al Pacino's Scarface) in the '70s and '80s, billion of dollars were laundered through local banks--and thousands of people were left dead. Time magazine tagged it "Paradise Lost." Corben compares these "cocaine cowboys" to the Old West cowboys or 1930's Chicago Prohibitionist-era thugs. In Cocaine Cowboys, key criminal underworld players--the killers, fugitives, cops and kooks—talk about the experience. Each has an eye glimmer of hardened reality, frozen by the bloodied heads splayed apart by gunfire--images shown unmercifully in photographs. For example, a two-year-old boy killed in a shootout is pictured in his casket. The tales are chilling, as kingpins give instructions to butcher troublemakers, lending grim humanity to this recent chapter in American history beyond "Say hello to my li'l friend."


In this docu, everyone is telling his/her own real crazy tale, and each story is fascinating in tragic ways. An imprisoned contract killer, Jorge "Rivi" Ayala, illuminates the psychopathic killing of his boss, Godmother Griselda Blanco, Miami's most notorious cocaine kingpin of that era who is thought to have killed more than 200 people. A skilled backwoods troublemaker, Micky Munday, recounts escaping into the Everglades and living as a fugitive for six years to evade the Feds. The main storyteller, Jon Roberts, has $2 billion in drug trafficking to his credit and a Dennis Farina-like mustache. Roberts' stories take us inside his world, despite the fact he doesn't have the most moral of compasses. Peripheral characters, such as Miami Herald reporter Edna Buchanan, lend sober credibility to the excesses. All characters are typically seedy, with aged faces, bad skin and grizzled voices which bespeak their real-life drama.


Cocaine Cowboys unfortunately runs a little long and is a bit underdeveloped in its thesis of how cocaine built Miami. We see the bloodshed and violence, but we don't see the direct link of cocaine-laundered money buying the city's wealth. And the story could have been told in 100 minutes or less. Nonetheless, Cocaine is an engaging docu, even if not completely mature in its convictions. Kudos to 28-year-old director (and Miami native) Billy Corben for rounding up the movie's rascals and getting them to talk. Corben also digs up mounds of archival footage and culls hours of interviews, which is Cocaine's selling point and creates a signature, jumpy visual style similar to reality TV.Miami Vice composer Jan Hammer is also enlisted for Cocaine's score, giving it a post-modern, authentic feel. Thanks to Scarface and Miami Vice's ubiquity, we all know the story of South Florida cocaine. Cocaine Cowboys gives the lore some localized, lived-in humanity.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 stars.