Billy Corben‘s Cocaine Cowboys (Magnolia) is fast and whiplashy — a 118-minute roller-coaster ride through the world of big-time Miami cocaine dealing 20, 25, 30 years ago…whew! I liked it start to finish and so did a lot of others (it’s running 82% on Rotten Tomatoes), but no review I’ve read so far has mentioned two very obvious points, so allow me.
(l. to r.) Jorge “Rivi” Ayala, Mickey Munday, former cocaine dealer Jon Roberts
(1) If you’re any kind of fan of Brian De Palma‘s Scarface (’83), an operatic chronicle of the rise and fall of Al Pacino‘s Cuban-born, Miami-residing cocaine gangster Tony Montana, you have no choice but to see Corben’s film because it gives you what the actual Scarface world was really like: manic, blood-soaked and ferocious beyond any concept of restraint. In fact, Corben’s film shows what a tea-and-crumpets party Scarface‘s story was, relatively-speaking, in terms of the mayhem. The real deal was insane, relentless…too much to pack into a single drama because viewers would either get bored or turned off by all the blood, or they simply wouldn’t believe it.
(2) No Hollywood-movie assassin has ever resembled Jorge “Rivi” Ayala, the top-dog hit man who worked for the most cranked-up cocaine boss of them all — Columbian Godmother Griselda Blanco (a woman who also ignored the rule of “don’t get high on your own supply”). Hollywood hit men always exude some form of malice or cold-bloodedness or sadism or twitchiness…something actor-ish, in other words. Rivi, on the other hand, is smooth-spoken, affable and fairly charming. He could be a Porsche salesman at a big South Beach dealership, or a city coun- cilman. I’ve never knowingly spoken to an assassin in my life, but I’ve somehow always known that the hit-men portrayals I’ve seen in various action movies weren’t right. Rivi is the proof.
Two other thoughts were circlulating as I watched Cocaine Cowboys: what’s so bad about delivering a harmful drug to willing consumers of same, and why don’t gang- sters ever wise up and sock some of their money away in a Swiss bank account while the getting is good?
One of the film’s more appealling talking heads is a former transporter named Mickey Munday — strictly a guy who would fly to Columbia to pick up a shipment and fly it back to Florida. Munday “sees the whole period as a great adventure,” Corben told me. “He regrets the prison time, but he feels no more complicit in the drug trade than Fed Ex is for the industries they’re shipping for. His attitude is, ‘I picked up a product and I didn’t sell anything.’ He enjoyed the chal- lenge and the adventure of it.”
We all know our society condones the taking of certain drugs that lead to self- destruction and the harming of innocents (family members, drivers on the road, people breathing in second-hand smoke) and yet condemns the taking of other substances and hands out long prison sentences to people who provide same. As long as they don’t drive or get near me, people should be entitled to drink, snort or smoke whatever poison they choose. I agree with Munday — there was nothing all that “wrong”, if you judge by a societal curve, about a pilot doing what he did.
Talk to anyone who knows anything about the life of a criminal, and they’ll all tell you bad guys don’t last any more than five to ten years, tops. Every last one gets killed or nailed by the law. The big cocaine-trade earners of the late ’70s and early ’80s brought in tens of millions. You’d think at least one or two of them would have put a few million into a numbered bank account somewhere so they could go off and live nicely once it’s all over. I asked Corben if any of his talking head survivors had thought this far ahead, and he said none had — or at least, none have copped to it.
The Cocaine Cowboys website has it all — names, chronologies, mini-bios, criminal records, etc. Very nicely designed.