In the typically highbrow world of documentaries, Cocaine Cowboys is a decidedly different breed of cat. A machinegun-paced exploration of South Florida's cocaine trade in the late Seventies and early Eighties, it is violent, exploitive and lurid. Far from copping an academic or sociological perspective, this unabashedly pulpy motion picture is clearly buzzed by the wild exploits of the flashy drug traffickers and murderous thugs that it follows.
And damned if it isn't also a hell of a ride. From its opening, a cheesy re-enactment of a 1979 drug-cartel massacre at a Dade County shopping mall, Cocaine Cowboys makes it clear that insight won't be on the itinerary. It's trashy, sure -- but it's engrossing, energetic, and thoroughly irresistible for true-crime fans or anyone else who ever went to the trouble of committing lines (the spoken kind, thank you very much) from Brian De Palma's Scarface to memory.
Lest you thought that 1983 gangster flick was overblown, Cocaine Cowboys proves to be an eye-opener. Mimicking the loquaciousness and rapid-fire alacrity of, well, a cokehead, the documentary illustrates the conflagration of factors that transformed Miami from a sleepy retirement town to a coastal Dodge City marked by mountains of blow and rivers of spilled blood. In 1976, the city had 104 murders. Five years later, there were more than 600.
The story that unfolds in Cocaine Cowboys is outrageous in its excess, making "Miami Vice's" Crockett and Tubbs look in comparison like Rocky and Bullwinkle (incidentally, "Miami Vice" composer Jan Hammer supplies the kitschy music score). Director Billy Corben rifles through a flurry of interviews -- from drug dealers to Drug Enforcement Administration agents, Columbian drug cartel hit men to crime reporters -- amid a dizzying montage of archival TV news video, stock footage, gruesome crime scene photos and lots and lots of shots of drugs and money.
The movie occasionally suffers from information overload, particularly when it comes to the head-spinning cast of characters, but it gets a mighty boost from its three main players -- Jon Roberts, a onetime discotheque manager who ended up a cocaine trafficker selling more than 100 kilos each week; Mickey Munday, a self-styled MacGyver who smuggled nearly 40 tons of coke from South America into the Sunshine State; and Blanco drug-cartel killer Jorge "Rivi" Ayala, who is currently serving life in prison. Their anecdotes, particularly those of Roberts and Munday, are riveting. Cocaine Cowboys' glorification of criminals might put the filmmakers on shaky moral ground, but there's no denying that many of these tales are jaw-droppers.
And just when you find yourself suffering from cinematic whiplash, the movie scratches at a provocative notion. Although Miami is no longer quite a haven of lawlessness it once was, Corben argues convincingly that the city owes its robust economy to the cocaine cowboys of yore. In the late Seventies, most of the nation was mired in a recession. Meanwhile, Miami was flooded in drug money as overnight millionaires snatched up everything from jewelry to luxury cars; banks sprang up overnight in an effort to house it all. But as crime novelist and Miami Herald reporter Edna Buchanan asks rhetorically, "How many people have to die for a shiny skyline?"
Still, your appreciation of Cocaine Cowboys largely depends on whether you're willing to switch off your moral compass for two hours. Don't expect redeeming value here; the flick is several notches shy of blood porn. And help me, but I thought it was a blast.
Presented in widescreen with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the picture quality is a bit spotty, primarily because much of it relies on TV news footage from the Seventies and early Eighties. Some combing and artifacts are noticeable, while a few clips are saddled with washed-out color. But this is quibbling. Cocaine Cowboy's raw, slapdash look is part of its trashy appeal.
Audio is available in Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0. The former is obviously the superior track, but it's really a negligible difference. The audio is serviceable -- there is no distortion or drop-off -- but not so remarkable by way of creative sound separation. Spanish subtitles are available, too.
Fans will have a field day with the bonus features. Hustlin' with the Godmother: The Charles Cosby Story (14:54) is a mini-documentary about an Oakland drug dealer who became the protégé and lover of psychopathic Miami drug kingpin Griselda Blanco (she figures prominently in Cocaine Cowboys). This is irresistible schlock, especially when Cosby reveals Blanco's kooky plan to kidnap John F. Kennedy Jr. in exchange for her freedom from prison.
Like the picture itself, the commentary track featuring director Corben and co-producer David Cypkin is jittery, jam-packed with information and a bit obnoxious. The guys are funny and enthusiastic about their subject, but Corben seems disturbingly star-struck by the criminals he interviews.
The DVD also boasts 14 deleted scenes that clock in for an aggregate length of more than 30 minutes. All scenes include optional commentary with Corben and Cypkin. Rounding out the supplemental material is an HDNet Films sneak peek for Mr. Untouchable.
In the DVD commentary track, Corben and co-producer David Cypkin note that they approached Cocaine Cowboys less as a documentary and more as a full-fledge gangster flick. It's a helpful signpost on how best to appreciate this pulp nonfiction.