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IN THE 1980S, RUTHLESS COLOMBIAN COCAINE BARONS INVADED MIAMI WITH A BRAND OF VIOLENCE UNSEEN SINCE PROHIBITION-ERA CHICAGO - AND IT PUT THE CITY ON THE MAP. THIS IS THE TRUE STORY OF HOW MIAMI BECAME THE DRUG, MURDER & CASH CAPITAL OF THE UNITED STATES, TOLD BY THE PEOPLE WHO MADE IT HAPPEN.
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. All of this deadly life in the fast lane makes for a fascinating movie, but Corben and coproducer David Cypkin's breathless commentary makes it clear that they're young, immature thrill-seekers, and their film makes no apologies for glorifying the drug trade while exploring its bloody and frequently fatal consequences. Their commentary also accompanies an abundance of deleted scenes, and there's also a bonus featurette, "Hustlin' with the Godmother," in which Griselda Blanco's former lover and big-time coke dealer Charles Cosby tells his story, which clearly has all the makings of a Hollywood movie along the lines of Blow. You can bet that film will eventually be made, and don't be surprised if it's Corben who makes it. --Jeff Shannon
- Commentary by director Billy Corben and co-producer David Cypkin
- Deleted scenes with commentary
- "Hustlin' with the Godmother: The Charles Cosby Story"
- Sneak Peak at Mr. Untouchable
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Top Customer Reviews
It does drag in parts, and could have been told in a more streamlined fashion. Even at 2-hours on length, the DVD has another two dozen deleted scenes, for anyone who wants more time with the men on the street. Anyone who enjoyed Scarface or Blow needs to pick this one up, as does any armchair economic historian.
Daily you would wake up, turn on the radio and get the body count: 3 men found in the trunk of a burning car; or a headless corpse found floating in a canal; or 4 men killed in a parking lot shootout, 2 civilians wounded in the crossfire. This was followed by an ad for Lanson's, a high end men's clothier, advertising a bullet proof men's dinner jacket, "What the best dressed Miamian is wearing." Driving down the Dixie Hwy. in Miami, you see a bus stop bench with an ad on the back: "Protectar usted y su familia" punctuated with images of an automatic pistol and a machine gun and an address on Flagler St. where you can pick yours up.
The movie speaks for itself just like "Scarface". I have no doubt the individual narratives are accurate and non-hyperbolic. The movie does credit the cocaine "business" with cash infusion into the area and the resulting uplift of the overall economy. However, it omits the psychological impact on ordinary citizens, who saw little of the cocaine bucks: fear of getting caught in a crossfire and the depression of living in a combat zone.
Also omitted from the storyline were some of the Colombian weapons innovations: the Colombians came up with armor piercing bullets and laser sighting long before the cops had them. Then the feds showed up en mass and the tide turned.
I gave the movie a "5" even though it was a documentary and had no plot, no real acting. But if you wanted to know how it really went down then and there...this is your movie!
By contrast, I strongly suspect this film would be far more useful to anyone genuinely seeking instruction in such matters. It documents what went on inside the Miami drug trade in exquisite and unflinching detail - at least during the "Miami Vice" era of the 1970's through to about the mid 80's. The fast pace of the film not only makes for great storytelling: it also means an incredible amount of information is packed into a relatively short time-frame. As a result, this is a work that easily withstands repeated viewing. Indeed, it virtually demands it.
Cocaine Cowboys has been criticized as being exploitative, and as lacking in real analysis of the wider social impacts. Surprisingly, such criticisms appear even in the product description here on Amazon. Personally, I don't think either criticism is fair. It is true that parents need to be aware that the R rating is there for a reason. Many extremely brutal still-shots in particular appear in this film. It does not skimp on the graphic reality of what happens when you shoot and kill people. But for the adult audience for which it is intended, the film is no more gruesome than it needs to be to honestly portray the events with which it is concerned. Nor more redolent with excess than to portray with equal honesty the milieu in which they occurred.
As for the lack of analysis, that's like criticizing a horse for not being a camel. This is a documentary of the old school: it just tells you its story in as neutral a way as possible, and leaves you to form your own judgements. Yes, it is sensational to watch. But don't let that fool you. In its own way this is an extremely rigorous example of the documentary filmmaker's craft.
None of which is to say that its creators aren't perfectly aware of the pop cultural context of their work. Of course they are! As a kind of knowing wink to the audience, Jan Hammer, famous for providing the music for Miami Vice, also provides the music for this work. He does a great job, too. His music alludes skilfully to the cocaine cowboys era without ever coming across as merely dated or self-referential. I think it would work perfectly well as straight background music even for those oblivious to the irony of his being chosen for this film.
Finally, I would add that this is one case where I would definitely recommend buying the DVD. The generous extras add an enormous amount of additional information, and even include a short bonus documentary "Hustlin' With The Godmother: The Charles Crosby Story". This picks up the life of the "Godmother" (Griselda Blanco) where the main feature leaves off.
In the end, this is a film that enthralls and informs, but does not judge. It just lays everything out for us, as dispassionately as possible. What we make of it all is up to us.
If I myself were to draw any inferences from what I have been shown, they would simply be these:
I am quite certain that the flow of product continues unabated. It's just that by the time the 80's drew to a close, those at the top of the food chain had learned that what works well in Columbia does not work in the US. Daily machine-gun battles in the streets and malls of Miami are not good for business.
And these people are powerful enough to enforce their interests.