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`Cocaine' trades in glitz, violence

A film on dealings in Miami years ago makes some interesting points but is sabotaged by its focus on sleaze.

November 03, 2006|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"Cocaine Cowboys," the slick and bloody documentary detailing the effect the cocaine trade of the 1970s and '80s had on the city of Miami, is more a "Scarface" wannabe than anything else. A glitzy story of drugs, greed and death, it's not an elevating film, and it's not meant to be.

Before the cowboys came to town, Miami was a quiet place that featured, someone says, "a lot of old people sitting around in beach chairs waiting to die."

Then Colombia's Medellin cartel, "the world's largest cocaine smuggling organization," discovered the place, more and more Americans got the drug habit, and lots of numbers in Miami skyrocketed. Those included the millions of dollars placed in local banks and the murder count, which went from 104 in 1976 to 621 in 1981.

"Cocaine Cowboys" tells this story with an all-sleaze-all-the-time attitude. Typical is the film's opening, when director Billy Corben felt compelled to offer a re-creation of a fatal 1979 Miami shootout, complete with an actor brandishing an automatic weapon and bullets graphically going into bodies.

Although those particular corpses are fake, large numbers of bloody real ones are displayed on screen, courtesy of the numerous crime-scene photographs Corbin favors. He also never tires of putting huge stacks of money on display, lest we forget that drug dealing is a highly remunerative activity.

"Cocaine Cowboy's" story is told largely by a trio of men who were there. Jon Roberts claims to have overseen the shipping of more than $2-billion worth of cocaine from Colombia, pilot Mickey Munday says he personally flew in some 10 tons, and Jorge "Rivi" Ayala is currently in prison for murder.

These gentlemen are all capable storytellers, albeit invariably self-serving ones. While the filmmakers clearly got a contact high from hearing all these war stories, most civilians will find a little of this goes a long way.

In a sense it's a shame that "Cocaine Cowboys" is so obsessed by violence, because the film has interesting points to make, including the notion that much of the growth of today's Miami is in part financed by money that was initially made in the drug trade. "What price a skyline?" asks veteran Miami crime reporter and mystery writer Edna Buchanan. "How many people have to die for a shiny skyline?"

It's an interesting question that deserves a more interesting, less gruesome film.


'Cocaine Cowboys'

MPAA rating: R for pervasive drug content, gruesome, violent images and language

A Magnolia Pictures release. Director Billy Corben. Producers Corben, Alfred Spellman. Director of photography Armando Salas. Editors Corben, David Cypkin. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.

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