Arriving in theaters to rescue those lolling in the depths of a well-meaning documentary funk is Billy Corben‘s "Cocaine Cowboys," which tells a sordid and shamefully entertaining history of the heights of the Miami cocaine wars. Sure, the lucrative business of trafficking Columbian coke through South Florida in the 80s led to plenty of bloodshed, but the people interviewed in the film tend to look back on the era with a combination of ghoulish survivor’s appreciation and disbelieving nostalgia. Half have been in and out (or just in) jail since then; the other half ruefully acknowledge that the money brought in by the drug trade sustained Miami through tough economic times and made the city what it is today.
"Cocaine Cowboys" may make use of the finest in cheesy period graphics and a synthesizer soundtrack by "Miami Vice" theme composer Jan Hammer, but it is still of the talking-head/archival footage school, and the opening third, in which a former high-level dealer Jon Pernell Roberts and smuggler Mickey Munday recount the good ol’ days of the lax late 70s, does drag a bit. It’s really not until the appearance of audacious hitman Jorge "Rivi" Ayala, and, anecdotally, his boss, that the film really kicks into gear. Griselda Blanco, glimpsed only in photos (in which she sports a rakish fedora), is the horrifying and compelling heart of "Cocaine Cowboys." Dubbed "La Madrina," the Godmother, she headed up a major drug organization and was surreally murder-happy; Ayala recounts her favored technique of having machine gun fire sprayed at a target and all those unlucky enough to be nearby.
What "Cocaine Cowboys" hammers in, intentionally or not, are the disturbingly porous walls between life and pop culture. Just as the film’s look so consciously evokes "Miami Vice" that you have to blink at the fact that the bodies piling up are real, the people within it shape and have been shaped by television and cinema. Blanco actually names her youngest son Michael Corleone; Ayala, jovially unapologetic about the dozens of killings to which he’s been linked, scoffs at "Scarface." And Roberts derides the staple "Vice" scene of dealer and buyer meeting up and peering into an open trunk full of wrapped kilos as something that never would have happened. How did it actually go? He’s all to happy to share.
Opens in New York and Florida on October 27th.
+ "Cocaine Cowboys" (Magnolia)