Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Drug Content, Gruesome Violent Images, and Language
Directed by: Billy Corben
Starring: Jon Roberts, Mickey Munday, Jorge Ayala, Al Sunshine, Sam Burstyn, Bob Palumbo, Toni Mooney, Edna Buchanan, Joseph Davis, Al Singleton, Louis Caruso & Raul Diaz
During the 70s and 80s, Miami, Florida was a city of powder, bullets, and blood. Miami was considered to be one of the most dangerous places in the USA and this was a direct result of a certain Colombian-made drug: cocaine. This white powder was everywhere and the following war on drugs inspired TV shows (most famously, MIAMI VICE) and films (most famously, SCARFACE). The gritty documentary COCAINE COWBOYS examines this tense period of Florida’s history, but botches parts of its execution.
COCAINE COWBOYS’s main driving force is a series of talking head interviews. I will give the filmmakers credit on this, they gave views from both sides of the law. The main criminals interviewed are Jon Roberts (a coke trafficker), Mickey Munday (drug smuggler/pilot), and Jorge Ayala (an enforcer/assassin). These three criminals relate their dark pasts for nearly two hours, but the film also includes the views of a detective (Al Singleton), a reporter (Al Sunshine), a D.E.A. agent (Bob Palumbo), a shady lawyer (Samuel Burstyn), and many more. However, some of these faces are quickly forgotten because the doc’s narrative seems intent on giving us the testimonials from Roberts, Munday, and Ayala above anybody else.
Besides using lots of interviews from criminals and professional folks, COCAINE COWBOYS also has an interesting visual style that constantly throws archive footage and photographs at the viewer. In spite of the low-budget production values in the interviews, there’s rarely a dull visual moment. The cheap-looking camera footage actually benefits this doc’s gritty tone. The film’s first half details a painstaking step-by-step process for how the Colombian bam-bam powder was transported into the country, along with the rise in cocaine’s popularity. The way that Roberts and Munday describe their lavish lifestyles is intoxicating to the point where you almost wistfully dream about living this high-life, cocaine-filled existence…until you remember the constant danger and death surrounding you at all times.
COCAINE COWBOYS takes a stark dive into the brutally violent side of the drug business during its darker-than-dark last hour. After a public execution is described (at a mall liquor store), the film rarely lets up in its viciousness. This second half is where Jorge Ayala is introduced and he gives us his fascinating life story working for Griselda Blanco (a.k.a. The Godmother of Cocaine). This assassin’s stories are horrifying as he graphically describes murders he committed and atrocities he witnessed (including a dead child caught in the crossfire of a hit). This second half is also where the pacing drags a bit, though that could be attributed to the unrelenting bleak nature of the subject matter. Prepare for lots of bloody crime scene photos during this doc’s second half.
For all of COCAINE COWBOYS’s interesting moments, the narrative flow does feel downright messy at times. The main focus is on the symbiotic relationship between Roberts, Munday, and Ayala, along with the Cocaine Godmother’s viciousness. The first half does a stellar job of setting up the drug’s rise in popularity and various smuggling techniques. Still, this documentary drops the ball in other places. There are people who pop in and out for no apparent reason. What’s the point of briefly bringing in a doctor if you’re not going to have him discuss the effects of cocaine on the human body or the many drug-related deaths he saw? The same can be said about the moments of a D.E.A. agent (not discussing the war on drugs or his job) and a few journalists (briefly mentioning the constant reports of homicide and nothing else). If this doc merely breezes past and outright ignores these talking points, then why even set them up in the first place?
Despite suffering from an unfocused second half and forgetting to include certain bits of context, COCAINE COWBOYS is a horrifyingly educational time for viewers who are interested in this topic. Constant archive footage and photographs make for a visual barrage of crime, drugs and bodies. The main interviewees (three criminals) do a wonderful job of shedding their revealing testimonies. I learned quite a bit while watching this true-crime doc. It’s also worth noting that two films are currently in production about Griselda Blanco (one with Jennifer Lopez and another with Catherine Zeta-Jones) and I’m very much looking forward to watching/reviewing both of those. If you’re interested in the topic, COCAINE COWBOYS is an interesting watch. Just be prepared to be left wanting more (in a bad way).