Billy Corben spins a vastly entertaining, well researched yarn, even if there is blood on every edit

Cocaine Cowboys

on October 27, 2006 by Mark Keizer
The rise of the drug trade in 1980s Miami is presented in a fashion most appropriate to its subject: fast-moving and filled with cocaine, corpses and cash. Indeed, while the period could easily be conveyed with journalistic solemnity, director Billy Corben goes the other way, cramming 118 minutes of Warholian imagery into a documentary that only occasionally threatens to cheapen such ultimately tragic material. His take on how Miami went from citywide rest home to trendy hotspot is filled with great anecdotes, interesting characters and plenty of true-crime intrigue. Fans of Scarface and even Goodfellas will definitely get their thrills.

The story begins in a much different Miami than the one we know today, a city so sleepy there was only one police car patrolling the entire town at night. But soon, the proximity of Miami to South American marijuana and cocaine-producing countries, combined with its miles of unguarded coastline made it a perfect entry point for billions of dollars worth of drugs. To this end, Corben introduces two men intimately responsible for moving pot and cocaine into Miami. Jon Roberts is an ex-New Yorker who distributed over $2 billion worth of sales for the notorious Medellin cartel. The other, with the goomba-ready name of Mickey Munday, is an expert in the transcontinental hauling of product. He not only transported more than 10 tons of cocaine from Columbia to Miami, he figured out unique ways to do it, creating nifty waterproof packages and reconfiguring barns to store drug-shuttling airplanes.

With money pouring in too fast to count, it was only a matter of time before the sociopathic leaders of these cartels began using murder to protect their business. Corben manages a jailhouse interview with Jorge “Rivi” Ayala, a contract killer for Griselda Blanco, also known as “Black Widow,” a woman with such a jones for killing that when she moved to Los Angeles in 1984, Miami's murder rate appreciable declined. Corben also broadens out his scope to interview local law enforcement figures and print journalists. (One reporter kept a gun in her purse, just in case.) The cops show pride tinged with exasperation as their prey's brazen behavior is not one degree diminished by the squadron of detectives working round the clock to stop them.

Corben did his homework. He conducted 180 hours of interviews and waded through 12 hours of archive footage. But his secret ingredient is Red Bull, or its editing equivalent, which transforms his work into a highly charged, graphics-heavy speed demon, constantly moving, rarely stopping for reflection. His pop art coup is getting composer Jam Hammer to provide the propulsive score, which is so reminiscent of his work on TV's Miami Vice that the whole sordid era risks being portrayed with a pastel sense of unwelcome flippancy. Corben concludes his film with the claim that Miami wouldn't be what it is today without cocaine, an intermediate step necessary to give the town the dangerous, enticing, big-money edge that now attracts hip-hop moguls and the MTV Music Awards.

That may be true, but it's an enormous price to pay so P. Diddy can appear cool to legions of fans and the city coffers can bulge with the largess of extra tourists. There are plenty of cities that managed to turn themselves around without the benefit of slain policemen and innocent bystanders, and there's no reason to think Miami wouldn't have done so as well, with the introduction of some hot clubs and top-name chefs. But, like the Mafia is to Chicago, cocaine is to Miami. Corben isn't saying this is a good thing, but there are times one wishes he didn't take so much joy in making his point. Distributor: Magnolia
Cast: Jon Roberts, Mickey Munday and Jorge "Rivi" Ayala
Director: Billy Corben
Producers: Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Rated R for pervasive drug content, gruesome violent images, and language
Running time: 118 min.
Release date: October 27

Tags: No Tags

read all Reviews »


No comments were posted.

What do you think?