Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

So I’m looking at the front page of this website and am noticing that that John Holmes documentary has been displayed for far too long and desperately needs to be replaced. Then I see that the doc ‘Cocaine Cowboys 2: Hustlin’ with the Godmother’ has been released and I haven’t even had a chance to see original ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ which comes highly recommended in some circles, and roundly hissed at in others. Unfortunately I am obviously part of the ‘Bottom Feeding’ demographic that New York Times critic Jeanette Catsoulis accuses this film of catering too as watching ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ was two hours of my life that was very well spent.

Director Billy Corbin’s hyper stylized, kinetic and frenzied documentary focuses on southern Florida in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and charts how the southern city transformed itself from a sleepy little town where old people went to die, to become the hip high flying gem of the gulf that it is purported to be today. To illustrate this point this film focuses on three people who are largely the films ‘stars’. There is Jon Roberts who tells, in amazingly glorious detail, how he emigrated from New York with 600 or so dollars in his pocket and how through timing and dumb luck would eventually be making a million dollars a week importing cocaine from Columbia. Then there was Mickey Munday, the pilot who worked with Jon and between the two of them devised what appeared to be an almost foolproof system in finding ways to import and distribute their drugs throughout Florida and eventually throughout the United States. The third ‘star’ of this film would be Jorge ‘Rivi’ Ayala who tells his tale from jail where he will never again see the light of day, again in amazingly clear detail, recites how he became the hitman enforcer to the ‘Godmother’ of the Medellin Cartel, the notorious Griselda Blanco who as we can see needed a documentary all to herself. It is believed that Blanco ordered the murders of over 200 people, with Ayala claiming responsibility for a large number of those murders and describing in grisly remorseless detail how he carried out a lot of these killings.

To support the stories of these three rogues of society, the documentary has interviews with a number of police officers, participants, and television reporters who tell stories from the front line in how Miami became, almost overnight, the murder capitol of the United States and how corruption ran so deep that four consecutive Miami mayors were indicted on corruption charges. We also were able to see fairly clearly the benefits of Miami’s drug economy as money flowed like the Nile and despite the fact that the rest of the United States was gripped in a debilitating recession during these years, South Florida was thriving as banks were booming, home sales were high, new building construction was exploding and how it was damn near impossible to keep luxury cars on the dealer lots they were selling so fast.

Naturally all of this had to come to an end, at least to some degree, as the death and destruction that had become Miami had gained national attention and became priority number one of the U.S. government, leading to numerous arrests, seizures, trials and convictions. All three of our ‘stars’ blame one Max Mermelstein as the snitch who put them away, with Ayala practically beggeing his handlers to allow him to kill Mermelstein, who to this day has a bounty on his head.

‘Cocaine Cowboys’ is actually more of a ‘show’ than documentary in a sense as it has a very slick, very stylish editing style which is combined with a constant and driving score by Jan Hammer that really pumps up a story that probably didn’t need all of these post production pyrotechnics as the story was interesting enough, at least to me, all on its own. Corbin also co-edited his film very tight as I don’t think there is a single silent space in the movies entire running time, making ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ almost feel like an action picture.

Though I’m a big fan of Michael Moorer’s work and I think he’s a genius of a filmmaker, he probably shouldn’t be called a documentarian since his films are opinionated and his main goal is to sell you on his way of thinking. Not so with ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ which simply allows its subjects to tell the story, and though it may feel a bit sensationalized through the hyper presentation, I don’t think you can blame the filmmakers that not a single one of these people who committed these crimes has an ounce of remorse for anything they did. There’s no doubt that if they hadn’t gotten busted they would still be doing what they do at this very moment. None of these cats take any real responsibility for their crimes as Roberts and Munday blame the Columbians for being piss poor businessmen, the Cubans for being way too violent and bringing on the heat, and Mermelstein for being a snitch. Ayala simply blames ‘The Godmother’ for just about everything but he does at least show some contrition for accidentally shooting a child.

With ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ Billy Corbin has taken a very familiar subject matter, one made popular by movies such as ‘Scarface’ and the Miami Vice television show, and has presented it in a way that while a bit over the top, was still wildly entertaining. This of course is going to lead the unavoidable feature film, which I doubt will be able entertain even a fraction as much as this documentary managed to do.

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