Billy Corben’s documentary Cocaine Cowboys is that rare film that truly warrants the designation “guilty pleasure”—not because it’s lousy yet likeable, but rather because its wanton glorification of Miami drug-running and murder during cocaine’s ‘70s and ‘80s heyday elicits feelings of guilt over being so compulsively entertaining. A rapid-fire recounting of cocaine’s rise to prominence in South Florida, the ensuing drug wars fought by rival Columbian and Cuban outfits, and the means by which an enormous influx of blood money helped transform what had been a sleepy retirement and vacation getaway into a glitzy, thriving metropolis, Corben’s nonfiction film packs tons of information into its hefty two hours by acting like it’s hopped up on blow, using an array of swift edits, graphical overlays, spliced-together archival and interview footage, and Miami Vice maestro Jan Hammer’s synth score to keep things moving at a frazzled pace. This don’t-stop-to-breathe approach isn’t always smooth or nimble but it does get at the wasteful spending and reckless criminality of Medellín Cartel smugglers Jon Roberts and Mickey Munday, as well as the heedless butchery of kingpin Griselda Blanco (a.k.a. “The Godmother”) and her right-hand executioner Jorge “Rivi” Ayala. Initially unopposed by local or federal law enforcement, the cocaine business quickly overtook marijuana as Miami dealers’ import of choice, a transition that resulted in billion-dollar profits and a cabal of drug lords who—through bribes, intimidation, and carnage similar to those detailed in author Mark Bowden’s Colombian-perspective Killing Pablo—wound up wielding almost as much power as the local government officials who opposed them. Dubbed the cocaine cowboys for their penchant for Wild Wild West-style shootouts, the principal players in this gruesome soap opera were nothing short of greedy and/or sadistic cretins, their downfalls attributable to a failure to realize that their insanely violent behavior jeopardized their lucrative livelihoods. And by playing up their brazen disregard for decency and the rule of law, as well as their fast, spendthrift ways, Corben taps into the perverse thrill of hearing about the confidential ins-and-outs of—and stupefying, only-in-Scarface anecdotes of those involved in—the illicit industry. Like a narcotics binge, though, Cocaine Cowboys’ in-the-moment kicks are, after the lights come up, apt to leave one with something of an ashamed and remorseful hangover.
- Magnolia Pictures
- 118 min
- Billy Corben
- Jon Roberts, Mickey Munday, Jorge "Rivi" Ayala, Al Singleton
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