COCAINE COWBOYS (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Drug Content, Gruesome Violent Images, and Language

Directed by: Billy Corben

Starring: Jon Roberts, Mickey Munday, Jorge Ayala, Al Sunshine, Sam Burstyn, Bob Palumbo, Toni Mooney, Edna Buchanan, Joseph Davis, Al Singleton, Louis Caruso & Raul Diaz

During the 70s and 80s, Miami, Florida was a city of powder, bullets, and blood. Miami was considered to be one of the most dangerous places in the USA and this was a direct result of a certain Colombian-made drug: cocaine. This white powder was everywhere and the following war on drugs inspired TV shows (most famously, MIAMI VICE) and films (most famously, SCARFACE). The gritty documentary COCAINE COWBOYS examines this tense period of Florida’s history, but botches parts of its execution.

COCAINE COWBOYS’s main driving force is a series of talking head interviews. I will give the filmmakers credit on this, they gave views from both sides of the law. The main criminals interviewed are Jon Roberts (a coke trafficker), Mickey Munday (drug smuggler/pilot), and Jorge Ayala (an enforcer/assassin). These three criminals relate their dark pasts for nearly two hours, but the film also includes the views of a detective (Al Singleton), a reporter (Al Sunshine), a D.E.A. agent (Bob Palumbo), a shady lawyer (Samuel Burstyn), and many more. However, some of these faces are quickly forgotten because the doc’s narrative seems intent on giving us the testimonials from Roberts, Munday, and Ayala above anybody else.

Besides using lots of interviews from criminals and professional folks, COCAINE COWBOYS also has an interesting visual style that constantly throws archive footage and photographs at the viewer. In spite of the low-budget production values in the interviews, there’s rarely a dull visual moment. The cheap-looking camera footage actually benefits this doc’s gritty tone. The film’s first half details a painstaking step-by-step process for how the Colombian bam-bam powder was transported into the country, along with the rise in cocaine’s popularity. The way that Roberts and Munday describe their lavish lifestyles is intoxicating to the point where you almost wistfully dream about living this high-life, cocaine-filled existence…until you remember the constant danger and death surrounding you at all times.

COCAINE COWBOYS takes a stark dive into the brutally violent side of the drug business during its darker-than-dark last hour. After a public execution is described (at a mall liquor store), the film rarely lets up in its viciousness. This second half is where Jorge Ayala is introduced and he gives us his fascinating life story working for Griselda Blanco (a.k.a. The Godmother of Cocaine). This assassin’s stories are horrifying as he graphically describes murders he committed and atrocities he witnessed (including a dead child caught in the crossfire of a hit). This second half is also where the pacing drags a bit, though that could be attributed to the unrelenting bleak nature of the subject matter. Prepare for lots of bloody crime scene photos during this doc’s second half.

For all of COCAINE COWBOYS’s interesting moments, the narrative flow does feel downright messy at times. The main focus is on the symbiotic relationship between Roberts, Munday, and Ayala, along with the Cocaine Godmother’s viciousness. The first half does a stellar job of setting up the drug’s rise in popularity and various smuggling techniques. Still, this documentary drops the ball in other places. There are people who pop in and out for no apparent reason. What’s the point of briefly bringing in a doctor if you’re not going to have him discuss the effects of cocaine on the human body or the many drug-related deaths he saw? The same can be said about the moments of a D.E.A. agent (not discussing the war on drugs or his job) and a few journalists (briefly mentioning the constant reports of homicide and nothing else). If this doc merely breezes past and outright ignores these talking points, then why even set them up in the first place?

Despite suffering from an unfocused second half and forgetting to include certain bits of context, COCAINE COWBOYS is a horrifyingly educational time for viewers who are interested in this topic. Constant archive footage and photographs make for a visual barrage of crime, drugs and bodies. The main interviewees (three criminals) do a wonderful job of shedding their revealing testimonies. I learned quite a bit while watching this true-crime doc. It’s also worth noting that two films are currently in production about Griselda Blanco (one with Jennifer Lopez and another with Catherine Zeta-Jones) and I’m very much looking forward to watching/reviewing both of those. If you’re interested in the topic, COCAINE COWBOYS is an interesting watch. Just be prepared to be left wanting more (in a bad way).

Grade: B

LIVE BY NIGHT (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Language throughout, and some Sexuality/Nudity

Directed by: Ben Affleck

Written by: Ben Affleck

(based on the novel LIVE BY NIGHT by Dennis Lehane)

Starring: Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper & Robert Glenister

Before the end of 2016, Ben Affleck’s LIVE BY NIGHT was being touted as a potential gangster epic and an Oscar contender. Things didn’t quite work out in Affleck’s favor though, because this film wound up empty-handed with no major award nominations and lost an estimated 75 million at the box office. This was especially disappointing for me because I’m a giant gangster movie fan and Affleck has proven himself to be a capable director/writer in the past (e.g. THE TOWN). A lot of NIGHT’s problems come down to its mixed bag script and messy pacing, but it still remains a decent outing for gangster fans.

It’s the 1920’s and the place is Boston. Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is a WWI veteran turned outlaw. Joe doesn’t consider himself a gangster, but he hangs out and commits crimes with gangsters on a regular basis. Joe also has developed a major crush on Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the gal pal of dangerous Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). After things unexpectedly go south, Joe finds himself saddled with a three-year prison sentence and a desire to get revenge on White. Joe’s chance for vengeance comes in a highly illegal job opportunity in Tampa, Florida. However, Joe’s newfound gangster lifestyle (though he still refuses to call himself a gangster) presents a series of new challenges.

The first positive qualities that immediately stick out in LIVE BY NIGHT are stellar production values. This film nails the time period it’s presenting through lavish costumes, convincing effects, old-fashioned settings, and authentic-looking vehicles. This is a period piece gangster story through and through. However, it also contains a number of well-worn gangster clichés. These include: an admittedly cool car chase, Joe’s by-the-numbers quest for revenge, lots of threat-laden conversations, a few bullet-ridden confrontations, and a cheesy voiceover narration that guides the viewer through the entire story.

LIVE BY NIGHT injects a fresh component into the clichéd Prohibition-era gangster story through its Tampa, Florida location. Plenty of gangster epics have been set in Boston, the Bronx, and Chicago, but I can’t think of many that took the Tampa approach. This setting throws a new an interesting flavor into the clichéd gangster recipe. One business-related subplot involves Joe building a partnership with a Cuban crime family and the most entertaining events involve a bloody feud with the Ku Klux Klan. Another interesting challenge comes in the backwoods religious folks who are deeply opposed to rum-running and gambling…because God.

Even with this neat location, LIVE BY NIGHT falls far short of its gangster epic ambitions. This is mainly due to shoddy pacing and one unconvincing subplot. The film’s opening fifteen minutes are dedicated to a prologue that somehow feels like it’s on fast-forward, despite taking fifteen whole minutes to set up. The film also has a disappointing tendency to run through some of the most interesting bits (like a gang war and Joe rising to the top of Tampa’s rum-running businesses) in montages. The script’s most egregious offense of poorly developing its plot comes in a half-assed romance that consists of a dance montage, brief flirting and one of the worst sex scenes that I’ve sat through in a long time. Still, we’re supposed to care about Zoe Saldana as Joe’s newfound love-interest, even though the viewer is given no reason to care at all.

Ben Affleck deliberately plays Joe as an “outlaw,” not a gangster. Sure, he affiliates with gangsters on a daily basis and isn’t above killing or stealing, but he’s no “gangster.” Affleck’s downbeat performance as solemn-faced Joe has good bits and bad bits, ultimately making for a so-so protagonist. Chris Messina is far better as Joe’s comic relief sidekick and lends a fierce attitude to the action-oriented moments. Chris Cooper gives the film’s best performance as a “non-corruptible” sheriff, while Elle Fanning has a memorable part as his faithful preaching daughter. Meanwhile, Robert Glenister and Remo Girone are intimidating as two rival mob bosses. Disappointingly, Brendan Gleeson has about five minutes of screen time and Sienna Miller plays an over-the-top Irish stereotype.

LIVE BY NIGHT has the pieces of a great film lurking somewhere within its messy execution, but bad pacing and a few forgotten subplots really kill this film’s lofty aspirations. The Tampa location adds much-needed freshness into the fun (but dusty) gangster clichés. The cinematography is beautiful and the production values are big. Occasionally, a truly fantastic scene makes its way through the film’s numerous problems (e.g. a suspenseful car chase, a showdown with the KKK, and a bullet-filled finale in a hotel). Still, LIVE BY NIGHT can’t live up to its gangster epic promises. This is an entertaining enough time for gangster movie fans, but don’t expect anything great.

Grade: B-