Cocaine Cowboys: Reloaded [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Magnolia Pictures
Review written by and copyright: Anthony Arrigo (16th June 2014).
The Film

Much time has passed since the cocaine boom of the late 70's/early 80's, when Miami was the booger sugar capital of the world. If you weren’t alive back in its heyday to witness all of the news coverage carnage and the government’s eventual response, maybe you played a little game called Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which more or less thrust players right into the epicenter of those glory days. Indeed, some of GTA’s missions were ripped straight from news headlines, such as the directive to visit a local shopping mall and gun down your enemies in front of horrified onlookers (many of whom, let’s face it, you also whacked). And, then, of course, there’s “Scarface” (1982), Brian De Palma’s epic crime opus that succinctly captured the zeitgeist of that period in Florida’s history. Just as in the film, when Cuban refugees came across the sea to dock on FL shores, the boats were more often than not filled with prisoners and scoundrels who Castro was all too happy to ditch on our soil. The streets became a war zone, and it took a few years for the government to be able to step in and drop the hammer on illegal activity. But up until that point, it was a criminal paradise. Films glamorized those behind the white pony trade and made drug dealers icons, making it easy to forget this was a very real period when terror lurked on every street in Miami. Truth is often stranger – and deadlier – than fiction, and recounting every story of cash-and-coke--fuelled carnage is a daunting prospect.

Director Billy Corben was up to the challenge. His explosive documentary “Cocaine Cowboys” (2006) culled from hundreds of hours of interview footage to paint a vivid picture of the real Miami drug scene, featuring interviews from street dealers, smugglers, hit men, and law enforcement. So extensive was the footage Corben had shot that a second film, “Cocaine Cowboys II: Hustlin’ with the Godmother” (2008) was put together, focusing on notoriously ruthless Columbian cocaine trafficker Griselda Blanco, aka The Godmother, aka The Black Widow. Still, there was even more footage that had yet to be shaped into a narrative, leading to the third in this (unintended?) trilogy, “Cocaine Cowboys Reloaded” (2013). “Reloaded” incorporates footage from the first film, along with “new” interview clips and a whole host of tales, to provide yet another comprehensive overview of Miami’s seedy underbelly. The same familiar faces from the previous entries are here to drop outrageous anecdotes left and right, all of which make “Cocaine Cowboys Reloaded” just as compelling as anything Hollywood has produced, maybe even more so.

The through line of the picture focuses on how cocaine was able to thrive in Miami during the late 70's/early 80's thanks to imported dealers and street hustlers who were brutally ruthless, operating on hubris, a huge cash flow, and tons of nose candy. Corben breaks down the interviews into three distinct acts: smuggling, cash, and murder, as well as an epilogue detailing government response. The familiar faces of Jon Pernell Roberts and Mickey Munday kick things off as the film sort of recaps how Miami became the white gold capital of America. Roberts, a former dealer, recalls how easy it was to operate under the radar in Florida at the time. He’s got a million stories and they’re all fascinating. Munday is an interesting personality, too. He’s much more reserved and low key than Roberts, quietly confident and slightly smug about the nature of his work. Smuggling huge amounts of cocaine without getting caught, and then, eventually, evading police for six years as a fugitive seems to have constructed a wall of hubris around the man. Munday pulls no punches in retelling his tales, which seem downright mild in comparison to those of other interviewees.

Cash rules the film’s second act. The drug industry was a boon for Miami financially, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars and being chiefly responsible for the vast number of high-rise buildings and businesses that were constructed during that time. These guys were making crazy money. To put in perspective just how much money we’re talking about, these guys had to budget for rubber bands every month so they’d be able to keep stacking their cash. So much money was pumped into the economy that market interest rates were affected. The profound effect the drug trade had on Miami can’t be overstated – drugs made that town what it is today. Of course, you can’t make all that money without spilling blood… and much flowed as the streets became like a literal war zone.

Many of the drug dealers who were operating in Miami did so under the auspices of the Medellín Cartel, a powerful organization that was run from Columbia. The enforcers sent to Miami to eliminate rival dealers and maintain “order” were barbarians. Targets were often shot and killed immediately upon sight; it didn’t matter if the killings were taking place in a public place, in someone’s car, or in a crowded shopping mall. The infamous Dade Mall shooting took place during broad daylight as gunmen exited a van marked “Happy Time Party Supplies”, armed to the teeth with heavy automatic weapons and bulletproof vests, before unleashing a flurry of rounds in an effort to kill one man. It wasn’t unheard of for assassins to kill bystanders or anyone else unlucky enough to be in the vicinity of a planned hit. Much of this act focuses on Jorge “Rivi” Ayala, a stone-cold hit man who worked for Griselda Blanco. Ayala is calm and collected, almost jovial at times, as he recounts the gruesome details of his most famous hits. Blanco was notorious for ordering everyone in the vicinity of a target killed, leading to a number of innocents to meet an early demise. Ayala recalls one instance where they had located a man who was at the top of Blanco’s hit list, so she ordered him killed immediately… despite the fact that he was in attendance for the funeral of his son at his own home. Blanco’s men pulled up, asked someone to get him outside, and they cut him down in a hail of gunfire right on the driveway. Ayala recalls this, and more tales just as barbaric, with little hint of remorse. This was business, and nothing more.

Corben winds the film with the government’s eventual crackdown on the streets of Miami. Citizens and government officials had reached their boiling point for the rampant violence plaguing their streets. Tasks forces were organized, marshals were sent into the streets and a hard push was made against the Columbian government to eradicate drug lords and their operations down south or risk losing our financial aid. They quickly acquiesced. The glory days of the white gold trade were officially dead. Roberts remembers how, upon being released from prison after serving 15 years, he returned to Miami (as a condition of his parole) and experienced heavy culture shock almost immediately. Everything had changed. Visiting Miami today, most people would never know the criminality that once ruled these streets. “Cocaine Cowboys Reloaded” is a shocking reminder of just how bad things were, and they’ve got all the stories to prove it.

Video

In an effort to match up old footage with new, the film’s 1.78:1 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded image has been heavily processed in post to achieve a uniform look. As a result, much of the footage shot with HD cameras often looks no better than the vintage clips that have a fittingly aged aesthetic. Knowing this was intentional, it’s a bit hard to fault the image’s deficiencies. There’s a grainy, faded appearance to nearly every shot, with colors lacking in saturation and weak contrast. Only the inserted still photos show off the clarity most viewers associate with HD. Close-up shots offer an increase in detail, proving there’s a much crisper HD image lurking beneath all of this processing. The idea to match up all of the footage is understandable, but the film might have been better served by allowing for a juxtaposition of old Miami with the new.

Audio

Most documentaries aren’t known for their audible experience, but, then again, not all of them are scored by the legendary composer Jan Hammer. His compositions are what breathe life into the film’s English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound track (48kHz/24-bit). Hammer delivers a score that is heavily reminiscent of his glory days on “Miami Vice” (1984-1990); heavy on the synth and driven by up-tempo beats. Those who are familiar with his work – and appreciate it – will revel in hearing his classic tones backing a film of this nature; they’re perfectly complementary. On the dialogue side of things, there’s little to complain about as both new footage and old is delivered with crystal clear clarity and strong fidelity. Subtitles are included in English for the hearing impaired, French, and Spanish.

Extras

The lone extra here is a reel of deleted scenes, though deleted stories would be a more appropriate description.

The deleted scenes (1080p) run for 13 minutes and 52 seconds, featuring additional stories from Roberts and Munday, among others. Everything they say is so outrageous and captivating it’s no wonder they steal the show.

Bonus trailers (1080p) are also included:

- “Beyond Outrage” runs for 1 minute and 58 seconds.
- “Big Bad Wolves” runs for 1 minute and 43 seconds.
- “The Last Days on Mars” runs for 2 minutes and 29 seconds.
- “Journey to the West” runs for 2 minutes and 8 seconds.
- “AXS TV” promo runs for 32 seconds.

Packaging

The single disc comes housed in a Blu-ray eco case, with a slip-cover included on initial pressings.

Overall

Three films in and the Cocaine Cowboys saga is just as thrilling and compelling as ever. If there’s more footage left over, I say whip it into shape and bring on a fourth entry!

The Film: A- Video: B Audio: B+ Extras: C Overall: B

 


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