In the 1970s and 1980s, Miami grew from a sleepy, retirement community into the glittering, money-filled metropolis it is today. During that time, the city also became cocaine center of the US, as well as the country's murder capital; in 1981, things were so bad that a Time Magazine cover story dubbed Miami "Paradise Lost," and suggested that Americans traveling there might be putting their lives in danger. After meeting Jon Roberts, a former dealer who lived through Miami's heyday (and did time for his involvement), the team of director Billy Corben and producer Alfred Spellman decided to make a movie about those days, and Cocaine Cowboys is the result.
Clocking in at just under two hours, Corben and Spellman's film has a very strange tone. Ostensibly a serious exploration of how cocaine affected Miami during the 1970s and 1980s, the movie devotes an awful lot of time to watching Roberts crow about his accomplishments and brag about his money. Also prominently featured with Roberts is Mickey Munday, a less flashy, fellow ex-con whose involvement in the cocaine trade was in transportation rather than distribution. The two men carefully lay out the structure though which cocaine was produced, brought into the US and sold, with the filmmakers eating up every word. Later, when the movie shifts to the financial impact the drug had on Miami -- despite the downturn the rest of the country was experiencing, the cash being spent by those involved in the cocaine trade made the city virtually recession-proof -- the two men again dominate the screen, detailing their spending habits, and telling gleeful anecdotes about being on first-name terms with the guy at the Mercedes dealership, and owning dozens of racehorses.
While it's understandable that those who benefited from it might be enamored by the fruits of the cocaine trade, it's difficult to ignore the fact that the filmmakers seem just as entranced as their subjects. There's an unsettling air of "This is so cool!" that pervades the film, from its quick-cut editing to the ever-present Jan Hammer (the composer of the Miami Vice TV theme) score. Even in the third segment of Cocaine Cowboys, when Roberts and Munday disappear from the screen, and are replaced by law enforcement officials, medical examiners, and reporters, the film feels like it's rubbernecking at the excitment rather than bearing witness, horrified by the violence and bloodshed of the drug wars. Watching TV images of bodies flash by, accomplished by Hammer's 80s action movie-style score, feels a lot more like a celebration of excess than it is a lamentation of tragic consequences.
In addition to its uncomfortably fawning attitude towards its subject, the movie's seriousness is further damaged by a visual style that is sometimes painfully dated. Instead of choosing to simply combine talking heads interviews with interesting, unusual archival footage and images, the film's creators felt the need to punch up stills with techniques rarely seen today outside of old television documentaries. Perhaps guided by their perception that the film had to be fast and attention-getting -- in the press material, Corben proudly announces that audiences have told him "It feels like you're on cocaine watching this movie!" -- still images are often broken up into foreground and background, and the foreground figures are brought forward (accompanied, as always, by Hammer's eager score). The technique feels more than a little overdone to anyone who regularly watches documentaries, and does nothing to enhance the film's standing as a serious project. Furthermore, the movie's editing is often fast just for the sake of being fast, rather than because speed enhances the film. Nothing is gained from hearing three different voices marvel in rapid succession at Dade County's murder totals -- apart from a deeper impression that Cocaine Cowboys in reality, is celebrating what it set out to simply document.