More of a real-life exploitation film than a bonafide documentary, Cocaine Cowboys is tailor-made for anyone who worships Brian De Palma’s Scarface. It’s no surprise that this slick, energetic film found a niche audience among crime-obsessed hip-hoppers; from a journalistic perspective it’s an irresponsible mess, but director Billy Corben is obviously more interested in capturing the thrills and danger of the drug trade that transformed Miami, Florida during the Miami Vice era of the late 1970s and ’80s. Corben has no particular interest in seriously examining the sociopolitical implications of Miami’s drug-fueled rise and fall, so Cocaine Cowboys lives up to its title by focusing on some of the most colorful, daring, and outrageously successful survivors of that era, when tons of cocaine were distributed through Miami by the kingpins of Colombia’s notorious Medellin cartel. Chief among the many interviewees are Jon Roberts and Mickey Munday (who personally transported over $2 billion worth of cocaine into Miami) and Jorge “Rivi” Ayala, a convicted drug-trade assassin now serving consecutive life terms in prison. They’re lively storytellers who are egotistically eager to share their coke-tales, and Corben’s only too happy to capture their exploits on film, up to and including the dubious use of violent reenactments that could easily serve as a recruitment film for Tony Montana wannabes.
It’s simultaneously disgusting and compelling, especially since Corben has a knack for matching swift editing to the pulsing score by TV’s original Miami Vice composer Jan Hammer. In the final analysis, it must be said that Cocaine Cowboys succeeds as a brash and breathtaking record of a bygone era, when murder rates were at an all-time high, coke was everywhere, and Miami was financially transformed into a nightlife mecca where criminals were kings. Or queens, as in the case of Griselda Blanco, the ruthless and self-appointed “Godmother” of the cocaine trade, who was responsible for countless murders and as of 2007 remained at large, her whereabouts unknown.