Magnolia Pictures // 2013 // 152 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Michael Nazarewycz // April 1st, 2014
The Untold Stories
Having spent the whole of my teenage years in 1980s suburban Delaware, I was pretty naive when it came to the subject of drugs. Oh, I had friends who had huffed nitrous oxide and at least one relative I thought had been into pot, and there was always the juicy rumor flying around school (parochial, no less) that someone was hooked on something. That was lightweight stuff, though. Beyond names and slang, my knowledge of anything harder than that was limited to White House slogans and images of my brain represented as eggs in a frying pan. With such limited knowledge of the actual substances, particularly the drug-du-era, cocaine, my knowledge of how that white powder afflicted the city Miami pretty much consisted of whatever the Miami Vice plot line was for that week. I've learned a lot since then, but having the chance to review Cocaine Cowboys Reloaded means having the chance to learn even more, and to do so with a great amount of era-specific footage that will take me back to my sheltered youth.
Cocaine Cowboys Reloaded is a re-release of the 2006 documentary Cocaine Cowboys, with about 34 minutes of additional footage worked into it. It quickly documents the early days of Miami, which was like any other town in the U.S. South. This is followed by a story of how marijuana, the city's first major illegal import, oversaturated the market and became increasingly difficult to smuggle because of its bulk. This led to the import of cocaine -- smaller in size and far more profitable. With the increase of the popularity of the white powder came an increase in the Miami economy, where the once-sleepy town became the hottest city in the country, offering every pleasure available to man. It also ushered in an increase in violence, as cartels battled each other in the streets, leaving countless dead in the streets.
Well. So much for Crockett and Tubbs. Although the hit show is mentioned near the end of the film (as little more than a footnote), the truth around Miami's cocaine wars are far less pastel and far more blood red. Cocaine Cowboys Reloaded is a tale told from three viewpoints: the media, the cops, and the criminals.
The media's story is an excellent balance of newspaper clippings, local and national televised news footage, and firsthand accounts from reporters Mark Potter (now of NBC News) and Pulitzer Prize winner Edna Buchanan. This is really the people's perspective, how locals and the rest of the country viewed the crisis in real time. There is no need for any shock value stunts here, as the level of violence -- including some graphic photos -- is shocking enough on its own.
From the perspective of law enforcement comes a tale of abject frustration. The cartels had more people and more weapons and more money, and the crime came in such relentless waves that the cops couldn't keep up. This was challenging enough on local law enforcement, until the added complications of corrupt cops, and strained resources and nerves, as did the exodus of officers who had done their duty and wanted no more parts of Miami. A task force was formed by Raul Diaz and staffed with "cops' cops," including Al Singleton, but it wasn't until state and federal resources were put behind the effort that any real progress was made.
The criminals' tales are the most fascinating, of course. Their stories are led by three men (with some input from one woman). Jon Roberts was a New York-born cocaine trafficker who came to Florida after a run-in with NYC police. Mickey Munday was a cocaine smuggler whose keen ability to improvise earned him the nickname "the MacGyver" of smugglers. Together, these two made ungodly sums of money, and while the tales of the things that kind of fortune can buy you are fun, Munday's tales are the most interesting. His attention to preparation detail -- the things he thought of in advance of law enforcement thinking of them -- had me shaking my head in wonder. Toni Mooney was a model and Roberts' girlfriend. Her perspective was one of an "innocent" who witnessed everything from the inside.
The third male of that criminal group was an assassin named Jorge "Rivi" Ayala. His story makes up the better part of the second half of the film. He worked for Griselda Blanco -- aka "The Cocaine Godmother" -- a woman as vindictive as she was successful in the drug trade. Rivi carried out many, many hits for Blanco, and goes into those stories, as told from jail, in considerable detail.
The first half of the film -- dominated by stories from Roberts and Munday (who worked together but were interviewed separately) -- is like riding a bullet train. It inundates you with moments and facts and quotes and stories at a pace that so much if it becomes a blur. Actually, it becomes difficult to connect peripheral players to the main story because everything comes at you so quickly. It's a "live in the now" way to present the documentary. The second half is mostly an expose on Blanco, and in direct contrast to the first half, wades a little too much in the details. It's interesting to hear about these crimes from the criminal himself, but you get the sense the filmmakers told him to spare no detail, so he spared no detail, but they forgot to edit out the truly mundane things.
A couple of other quick notes: be on the lookout for archival footage including current Vice President Joe Biden, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and television journalist Katie Couric (with a fabulous '80s coif). Also pay attention to the tunes, as the film was scored by Jan Hammer, he of Miami Vice fame (and honestly, you can tell).
The 1.78:1/1080p HD widescreen presentation of Cocaine Cowboys Reloaded (Blu-ray) is a mixed bag, for no other reason than the source material. The more recent the footage the better the quality, with scenes featuring brighter backdrops suffering considerable washout. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master audio track does an excellent job balancing the quality of the various sources, although the score is frequently overridden. The only bonus feature is a collection of deleted scenes (13 minutes). The one notable anecdote involves Munday's unexpected personal meeting with Manuel Noriega. Everything else feels like scenes clipped from the second-to-last cut of the film to get it to its final state.
Cocaine Cowboys Reloaded takes liberties that you will make some simple assumptions; it connects A to C without giving you B, and wants you to simply understand that A happened and C happened, so B is unnecessary detail. For example, the introduction of cocaine turns Miami into the playground of the rich and beautiful, but it never explains just how that happened. Who was there in the early days to buy the stuff? I don't need a twelve-page PowerPoint on it, but I'd like to understand just how A got to C. The film also squeezes in a segment on the Mariel Boatlift, which increased crime in Miami, although that event seems more coincidental than anything else.
I wish I had seen the original film before this one to understand what was added. At 152 minutes, despite the compelling subject matter, it's simply too long, especially with so much of the higher-paced action frontloaded. It's best to approach it as two films tied together with overlapping players (something Marvel is training us well to do) and a tidy postscript. If you have an interest in the subject matter or the era, be sure to find Cocaine Cowboys Reloaded (Blu-ray).
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 152 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site
* Facebook Page