Inside The Sun And Gun Capital
Friday, November 10, 2006
I won't be the first or the last to point out that "Cocaine Cowboys" could have been called "Miami Vice: The Documentary."
Directed and edited in blasting, coke-rush rhythms by Billy Corben, it's the story of a few years in the life of Miami, where a perfect storm of converging elements created a hurricane of violence in the 1970s and '80s. At half the length the film would have been twice as good; nevertheless, it stokes a nostalgia some may have for a magical period in Miami history when it was, ever so briefly, the American Casablanca.
As Corben points out, the arrival of thousands of illegal Colombian immigrants, the sudden popularity of cocaine as a middle-class drug of recreation -- as well as issues of border manpower and technology that made smuggling easy -- combined to turn the city on the bay into . . . well, you were expecting Dodge City, right? Actually, in comparison, as one witness testifies during the film, "Miami made Dodge City look like a Baptist Church convention." In three years, the number of murders doubled from 300 to 600.
If you're a fan of scene-of-crime photos, this one goes on your must-see list. It's got about 200 images of men lying facedown in curious postures of collapse, their heads afloat in an ocean of red goo, their skulls seemingly deflated by 9mm puncture wounds. Corben uses the staccato of the execution-style murders as a kind of Greek chorus, cutting away to montages of images of the recently departed in a rhythm that seems to suggest cards shuffling, hands being dealt. And when I say "cutting away," I do mean "cutting away." This is the most aggressively edited film in years: It pounds, it churns, it go-fast boats, it spurts, it spray-paints.
Corben will do anything to advance the story and convince you that you're not seeing just another talking- (or bleeding-) heads documentary. For example, he'll cut away to a kind of stock figure of demonology, a Latino spraying MAC-10 lead all over the joint to stand for the violence of which no film exists; he loves to mix film stocks in intriguing ways, contrasting the kind of dreary overexposed tourist bureau footage with jangled newscasts reporting the night's body count. He loves to freeze-frame on stylized portraits of various players in that long-ago, faraway world, and come back to them over and over. Or he'll put his interviewees in "interesting" places to more or less disguise the fact that this is really just a talking-heads movie: Edna Buchanan, the great Miami Herald crime writer who rode Miami's extravagances to a national reputation, is photographed perched under some bridge. Wow, you're thinking, what a cool bridge.
But the movie is really about its voices. Primarily it follows three, all from, as Sonny Crockett used to say, the wrong side of the tracks. One is Jon Roberts, a sleek former New York nightclub owner who got to Miami with $650 in his pocket in the late '70s, saw what was happening and got into cocaine distribution on the ground floor. Hmm, far from looking wasted from his life of crime and his years in prison, he looks today prosperous, amused, capable and witty. What was that about crime not paying? Then there's Mickey Munday, who owned a small aviation service. Again, the physics of right place/right time put him in the big money, flying the hops from Medellín to Miami's many unpatrolled small airports. He was a fugitive or a prisoner for 12 years but looks none the worse for wear. Nice ponytail.
Finally, the big catch would be Jorge "Rivi" Ayala, a distinguished-looking fellow with a square, handsome tan face which nicely sets off his shock of gray hair, his white teeth and his khaki prison uniform. He is doing concurrent life sentences for murder; he was the center of the perfect storm, the professional killer.
It is through the abundantly charming Rivi that we get into "Cocaine Cowboys' " most interesting story, the one about "the Godmother" of the cocaine trade, Griselda Blanco, a portly but not unattractive mom of three who was pretty much the Attila the Hun of the cocaine wars. This Colombian woman ran a smuggling operation and just killed and killed and killed. The contrast between her plump, almost matronly visage and those poor punks slopping in their own blood in the crime scene photos couldn't be more marked or more fascinating.
The movie would have been much more interesting if it focused more tightly on Blanco, her rise and semi-fall (she did time, but not much); as it is, it doesn't get to her until the halfway point.
And "Cocaine Cowboys" fails to make enough of or report with enough rigor on the extraordinary blast of attention accorded the city in the popular culture -- the countless magazine covers and feature stories, as well as "Scarface," the big Al Pacino movie, and the TV phenom that was "Miami Vice."
Cocaine Cowboys (119 minutes, at Landmark's E Street) is rated R for pervasive drug content, gruesome, violent imagery and profanity.