We are proud to introduce Judge Katie Herrell, whose first assignment was a real blow...I mean, blast!
"Everybody does have a price."
Selling drugs, now that's a lucrative, hard, maybe even laudable business. You have to be really smart and affable to sell drugs. What? Drugs kill? Well, not intentionally. Sometimes, someone gets in the way and they have to be whacked, but that's just business and only other drug guys get hit. What? Innocent families are destroyed? But look at all the new supper clubs and banks—drug money is still money. Oh, documentaries are supposed to be real? This wasn't the prequel to Scarface or Miami Vice? What about those 'aw shucks' cops or the stand-up members of the community? They said the drug war is bad, really bad. And there were lots of shots of dead bodies. Dead bodies are bad. But those drug guys, gee, they're kinda cool. Besides, this is a "non-fiction film."
Facts of the Case
Before the 1970s, Miami, Florida was a "virgin city" with "old people sitting on beach chairs waiting to die." It was beaches, heat, sand, and sun. But it was also a convenient geographical and topographical location for deliveries from Colombia and Cuba. First those deliveries were bales and bales of marijuana. Then, as the American drug tastes switched to cocaine (or the import business changed those tastes), that drug began flooding the shores of the city. The drugs brought extensive money and growth to Miami, effectively developing the city's skyline. But they also brought horrific violence and corruption. This documentary details the daily business of several state-side traffickers and the cops who were always one step behind. Filling out the story is the brutal Colombian matriarch and her "enforcer" who kept the violence high with a blasé regard for life and an insatiable lust for cash.
We meet the main figures in Cocaine Cowboys through person-to-camera monologues; it's Real World confessional-style filmmaking. There is Mickey Munday, with his long kinky ponytail and uneven face, who piloted the loot between Colombia and the U.S. Munday is a calm, cool character. He seems to feel no remorse over his drug years, despite the fact that—we learn near the end of the film—he spent a sizable amount of time on the run or in jail. In the film, he sits in an airport hanger detailing his exploits while maintaining an 'I'm smarter than you, just like I was smarter than most of the other drug guys' attitude. More than just the pilot, Munday was the mastermind behind these trips, employing numerous "insurance" tactics to allude the police. These insurance tactics—further expanded upon in the deleted scenes special feature—included having a spotter car that would fake drunk driving and crash, if cops were looming during the car transfer portion of the drug run. When the producers (Billy Corben, director/producer and David Cypkin, co-producer) comment on these deleted scenes there is a certain amount of awe at Munday's anal diversionary tactics; they both agree he was over the top, but also concede that it's better safe than sorry. The only time Munday seems to show any remorse is when he remembers a million dollar plane they had to intentionally sink to avoid police detection. Losing planes is bad for business.
Jon Roberts was the middle man. He transfered the drugs from Munday to seller, making a tidy profit. A tan twitchy guy, Roberts is portrayed as another smart, affable guy who liked the quick cash and glamourous lifestyle of a drug dealer. He's filmed on a deck under palm trees or at a vacant hot spot, legs cross, face tan, looking like he just came from his golf game to have a glass of lemonade. In the deleted scenes—where it is explained that Roberts actually had a run-in with the law before he got involved with drugs and opted to be shipped to Vietnam rather than serve time—the producers note that one of the cops in the film also went to Vietnam and that it could have gone either way with who became the drug dealer and who became the cop. This is another annoying theme of the movie: "Anyone could become a drug dealer." This might be a true statement, if you strip out all the morals of drug dealing. It's a hard case to argue that illegal drug trafficking isn't bad, even in a quest for an unbiased film. The producers actually accomplish a sort of glorification of drug dealing, by making it seem like just a business that anyone could stumble into and become successful. Roberts is nauseatingly portrayed as a nice guy who gets along with everyone, visits a pshyic (who apparently tells him what days are safe to run the drugs, but freaks out when Roberts shows up with a guy in his trunk, as if all along she was telling him what day to plant his turnips), has a penchant for pretty girls, and doesn't have a palate for cocaine himself. But if you watch the deleted scenes and follow the actual narrative of Roberts' life, he was never a 'good' guy, never going to be. He didn't care how he made his money, he just needed to make a lot of it.
And then there's Jorge 'Rivi' Ayala, a.k.a. "The Enforcer." Rivi is the only character currently in jail. He's a sturdy fellow who, as part of his plea-deal, is invited to share all the gory details of his hit-man days. Without so much as a darkening of his eyes, Rivi recites his days as the enforcer for a matriarch of the Colombian drug circles, Griselda Blanco, a.k.a. "The Godmother" or "Black Widow." Blanco was a ruthless woman, encouraging Rivi to kill kids, cops, whoever seemed to be in her way, or was simply convenient. Rivi is an ace in the producers' 'drug dealing is just a business' theme. This guy is a cold-blooded killer, but as he explains how he refused to kill children—except that one, accidentally of course—or cops, we are left with Rivi the noble hit man. Only through the captions at the end do we learn Rivi was stabbed in prison or caught up in a nasty phone-sex scandal with the D.A.'s office that discredited him as a witness in Blanco's trial. These tidy tidbits, much like Robert's history, are easily missed if one isn't watching the film with the intention of writing a review about it.
The narrative of these three main fellows represent the three-act structure of the film—Business, Money and Murder—according to the producers' commentary. Their narratives are juxtaposed with reenactments or archival footage of the action: there's Munday with his plane; Roberts at his suburban stash house; Rivi with a machine gun. There's a hint of the Colombians who are controlling everything, but aside from Blanco, they aren't prominent figures. There's also pop-up interviews with local Miamians—a doctor, a journalist—detailing the scariness of the times and exploring the rise and fall of physical Miami. These people are educated and passionate about Miami, but they are merely commentary.
Then there's the cops. The cops are filmed at the scenes of various crimes or in a car going to those scenes in what is referred to as "The Homicide Tour of Miami." These poor cops seem resigned, weak. They apparently didn't have the brains, the stamina, or the manpower to keep up with the criminals. At the climax of the drug crisis, many cops in Miami were aiding and embedding the drug users—the money was just too enticing.
The Colombians, the cops, and the concerned citizens are really just supporting characters in Cocaine Cowboys. The drug guys, and the themes they represent, are the stars; their interviews define this film. The other devices—stills of dead bodies, grainy photos of people they couldn't interview floating across the screen, shots and shots of money and cars, seem rather amateur, an added afterthought to fill out the narratives. The producers (or the one who commands the commentary portion, constantly interrupting his counterpart) is thrilled that his movie is an "inspiration" for a popular hip-hop figure. Apparently, when this famous figure heard the movie was the true story behind Scarface (and, if you've ever watched at episode of MTV's Cribs, Scarface is IT to the hip-hot set) he watched the film 30 times in a few weeks, rolling it constantly in his Escalade. This producer is further thrilled by film's soundtrack, composed by the man behind the Miami Vice theme song. I hadn't even noticed that there was a soundtrack before he mentioned that.
The audio element of Cocaine Cowboys could never be a stand-alone soundtrack CD. The music is tinkly and elevator-esque; it wasn't annoying or pleasurable, but rather like the foam peanuts that package breakables. Honestly, a stronger base or some rap music would have accompanied the scenes better, even if that is being stereotypical. Furthermore, I had a hard time understanding Rivi. His knowledge of English was apparently a key to his "success," but he has a pretty strong accent which is hard to decipher at times.
The visual element had the opposite problem. The interviews themselves were fine, no problems there. Apparently, they had three cameras on Rivi at all times. But really, he was perched on a chair in a prison the whole time; he wasn't going anywhere. A lot of the archival footage was understandably older and a bit grainy, but they also did a lot of re-creation of scenes and sometimes (and maybe this was intentional and is therefore to the producers' credit) it was hard to tell the difference between real archival footage and fake. Then there were the photograph stills—floating people embossed on a scene. These photos honestly looked like photocopies that had been cut out with kid scissors. There was just too much going on visually in this film. I felt like the screen was constantly changing from the real film to the comic-book version and it wasn't Sin City caliber.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Of course, I don't really believe the filmmakers are trying to applaud or glamorize drug trafficking. They are simply letting the characters tell the story and control the narratives, essentially control the film, which is an honorable documentary tactic. And they note in the commentary, this film was all about the "access"; they couldn't tell the stories of the people they couldn't get access to, namely the Colombians. I am sure the filmmakers expect that any half-intelligent person is going to take away from this movie the atrocity of the drug scene in Miami. The grotesqueness is just too obvious to miss, and it doesn't need arrows or exclamation points to cement that point. The main characters are engaging and easy to watch on screen precisely because they really do seem to be smart, articulate, and affable guys. On the surface they really do seem to be anyone—decent guys who just took the wrong path in life. It is a wonderfully engaging and interesting non-fiction film. Plus, the directors also insist in the commentary that at the time of this movie, the mid '70s and '80s, people didn't really realize how destructive cocaine was. Cocaine was for the rich and successful; it was heroin that was keeping the cops busy and ruining lives.
Drug movies are cool and Cocaine Cowboys is no exception. They have drama, violence, emotion, action, guys, and gals who do unbelievable things with very little thought or care to the consequences. But if you were to sit your teenager down with this movie and the promise, "This movie will show you why drugs are bad," your greatest intentions will fail miserably. For the main characters, punishment and jail are just a caption or a commercial; the consequences are easily tuned out. There are so many pictures of dead bodies—the same dead bodies shot from multiple angles—that you begin to tune those out too. (Plus, there's an incredible amount of shots of really expensive cars. Apparently selling drugs is black and white: Corvettes, Good, Dead Bodies, Bad.) There's not one single scene where drug users are strung out, homeless, or threatening their own mother for cash. Any time cocaine is shown being snorted it's at a pretty-people club. Cocaine Cowboys isn't about the destruction of drugs themselves, it's about the business of trafficking drugs. And that's a messy business—perfect for the screen. But if no one were using drugs—or desperate to have drugs at any cost—there wouldn't be a drug trafficking scene at all and that fact is lost here. Plus, not just anyone is going to sell, traffic, or use drugs. There are plenty of people who are desperate for money or excitement or success and find legal ways to achieve those goals. Everybody might have a price, but a lot of people also have a limit.
Guilty as charged. Everyone really does have a price. Roberts and Munday's price is pretty straightforward: cash and excitement. Viewers will get a vicarious thrill of watching people live hard and fast without facing the consequences themselves. The filmmakers—independent filmmakers levied with making an interesting film on a low-budget without major Hollywood support—gain clout with the hip-hop set and get to meet the composer of the Miami Vice theme song.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
• Audio Commentary by director Billy Corben and co-producer David Cypkin
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