Originally made and released in 2006, director Billy Corben's Cocaine Cowboys has been reissued by distributor Magnolia Releasing in a Reloaded edition that runs an hour longer than the original cut. Without that original movie on hand to compare it's hard to say specifically what was added but the big red banner across the case stating that over sixty minutes or new material has been included lets us know that, yes, this is a significantly longer cut of the movie.
But what's it all about? Well, in the late seventies not a whole lot was going on in Miami and when there were issues with the fishing industry relating to the Bahamas and their restrictions on lobster trapping, a lot of people wound up out of work. So what did they turn to? Pot smuggling. Miami was a great location for that because it was close to the South American supply, it was coastal, and there were scores of islands around to use. With the advent of pot smuggling came the presence of some big time drug trafficking rings which inevitably lead to the desire for a more profitable item to bring in. They found this in the form of… cocaine. Coke was worth a whole lot more than bud, and it proved to be an immediate hit.
So a lot of people got involved in the cocaine trade and these people made a lot of money. While this was happening, a lot of Columbian immigrants, many in the country illegally, started taking control of the trade using ruthless and frequently brutal tactics. Simultaneously, Jimmy Carter decided to allow 3500 Cuban immigrants into the country which lead to Fidel Castro ‘flushing' scores and scores of undesirables into Florida by way of the Mariel boatlift. This was basically ships showing up packed with Cuban immigrants looking to relocate to the United States. Many got in and while plenty where honest, hardworking types looking to start a new life, there were a whole lot of criminal in the mix. Many of these criminals found work alongside the Columbians in the cocaine trade and soon enough the cops were overworked and understaffed in a big, big way. Miami saw a massive influx of money, the murder rate skyrocketed and whole lot of people wound up rich, dead or both.
Corben tells this story with a mix of newly recorded interviews with cops and crooks alike and a wealth of archival TV news clips, newspaper photographs and pictures from other sources. Sometimes the still images are slightly animated, for example, the eyes of a photo's subject might move to express anger or trepidation, which gives the movie an interesting style. It should be noted for more sensitive viewers that a lot of the photos used, particularly in the last half of the movie where the drug trade has gotten to be insanely violent, are taken from crime scenes and do quite graphically display dead bodies and bloody injuries. Some may take issue with this, but there's no need to sugar coat the subject. These were violent people involved in a violent business and murder was all part of it. Nowhere in the documentary is this made more apparent than in the interviews with a hitman, no behind bars, who was employed by a Columbian ‘Godmother' of the trade. Here, on camera and with unflinching bluntness, he discusses how he and some of his cohorts would ‘spray' with their MAC 10's on a hit to ensure that they hit their target with no concern whatsoever for taking out any innocent bystanders that might be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If she wanted a man killed at the wake for the son he lost in a swimming pool accident, no problem. They'd just go up to the house during the wake, ask for him at the door and then mow him down with a machine gun in his drive-way.
Interviews with the cops involved in this detail not only how hard it was for the Miami police department to stay on top of this but also how corruption was a huge problem. We also hear from traffickers, smugglers, girlfriends, reporters and various other colorful characters all of whom had some part in either the propagation or attempts to put an end to Miami's cocaine trafficking industry. As the documentary comes to a close, we learn how the advent of Miami Vice became a concern for city official who worried that the show's gritty style might hurt the tourism industry. In fact it had the opposite effect and the city flourished once the authorities were finally able to crack down on the drug trade. Poignantly the documentary closes by making the point that most of modern day Miami's skyline was paid for by the drug trade, that the international banking market that exists there now was a result of the cocaine cowboys who ran it all and that, financially speaking at least, the city is better off now for having had the problem in the first place. Of course, the film also points out that too many people died for pointless reasons for it to have really balanced out. At two and a half hours long some might expect this to drag but even with the longer running time, it's a really engaging watch. It's more than just a bunch of talking heads but in fact a visually arresting and historically insane time capsule of sorts, a fascinating portrait of a bygone era that would shape a city in ways that continue to affect not only the city itself but the country as a whole.
The film is presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.78.1 widescreen and the transfer quality is, because of the different archival sources used, understandably erratic. The newly shot interview footage looks great - nice and clean and clear and colorful and everything you'd want it to be. The archival footage? It varies a lot depending on the clips in question. Old 70s and 80s era news casts tend to be taken from tape sources and as such, they're soft and worn out looking. Tracking lines and tape wear is obvious at times. Overall though, things are fine. This isn't going to blow your mind with the utmost in video clarity but it looks good enough.
A DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is provided, both in English, with optional subtitles provided in Spanish only. The clarity of the track is fine, with the music spread out rather well between the different channels in the mix to make for a fairly immersive experience. Again, the same problem applies here in regards to the archival clips in that some of the older ones aren't in the best of shape, so there's some hiss and some level bumps here and there. Overall though, the mix is fine and it gets the job done without any serious issues.
Outside of menus and chapter stops the disc includes some previews for unrelated Magnolia properties and about fifteen minutes of deleted scenes, one of which is quite interesting in particular because it addresses the involvement of a certain notorious world leader at the time that the ‘Cocaine Cowboys' phenomena was going down. The disc comes housed in a standard Blu-ray keepcase which in turn fits inside a cardboard slipcover.
Cocaine Cowboys is a fascinating portrait of the turbulence that Miami was going through in the eighties when the drug boom was at its peak, but it's not a movie for the faint of heart as a lot of the archival images are pretty unsettling. Regardless, it's a pretty riveting true crime film that contains some interesting interviews and a wealth of news reports, facts and related material to make its case. This Reloaded version is light on extras but it adds another hour to the running time. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.