Review of Cocaine Cowboy II directed by Billy Corben
Rating *** 1/2
I've always been interested in stories about wrongful convictions and unjust sentences. This story shows the flip side of that equation with two people that should be spending their days in prison but instead roam free. In both cases the causes can be traced back to inept prosecutors and police and an imperfect justice system.
I have not seen the the first Cocaine Cowboys (it's in my que), so I can't compare this film to that one. But I definitely don't feel as though it was a disadvantage to see them out of order. This film stands on its own.
This is the story of Charles Cosby and Griselda Blanco who in the early nineties controlled a large part of the US cocaine trade. It's also a story about how human desires motivates our actions whether it be as a drug addict or the simple desire for love and affection (and sex).
Charles Cosby is a low level drug dealer who aspires to greater things. He very easily could have accomplished great things as a law abiding citizen had he chose that route. Instead, the quick and easy profits of drug money steered him towards a life of crime. His desire to do more and make more led him to Griselda Blanco, who was perhaps the head of the largest Cocaine business in history. You've probably heard of Pablo Escobar. Well Griselda was his mentor.
While Griselda is an unlikable character directly responsible for many deaths and damaged lives, Charles is a gregarious character whose only goal is the pursuit of money. He becomes fascinated with the story of Griselda and her accomplishments as the Godmother of cocaine. He writes to her in prison. After meeting Griselda and forming a romantic relationship with her, he takes the express elevator to the top of the cocaine trade. He becomes her number one contact on the outside, trumping even her own sons. Together they amass millions of dollars in drug money.
The filmmakers tell the story in a very unique style using a combination of interviews, images, and what they call animatics. The main method is to simply have Charles tell his story directly to the camera. While there is no narration and the story is told by the actual people involved, the director admits that he did many retakes of shots and gave direction just as you would in a feature film. Some might claim that that takes away from this as being a true documentary, but the effect is a seamless telling of the story. The animatics are basically two dimensional graphics that are cut and filmed in three dimensions. The animatics are used to dramatize scenes of action or violence and in one case sex. In the audio commentary the director states that they were going after a comic book hero or graphic novel look, and that's exactly the impression I had.
The actual story of Charles' rapid rise is an interesting one and it's told in a compelling way. But the fact that he has never been to prison and that Griselda, who is personally responsible for hundreds of murders, is now free because of a sex scandal in the prosecutors office leaves you with the impression that justice has not been served.
The film never explains to my satisfaction how Griselda ended up in prison and what her sentence was. They do talk about a cocaine shipment that came in from Columbia on a multi masted sail ship during the bicentennial celebration and how that led to her arrest. But there aren't enough details to piece it together. The other thing missing from the film is having Charles confronting the dark side of what he did and the damaged lives and families that resulted from his personal enrichment. It's covered in the audio commentary and in the extras, but they could have used more of that in the film. Instead the filmmakers portray Charles as a redemptive individual who now lives a peaceful, crime free existence with his family. The fact that there are thousands of individuals rotting away in prisons over what amounts to minor drug infractions while these two major players go free speaks to just how screwed up our justice system really is.
The DVD has some extras including an audio commentary and a behind the scenes making of short. After watching this movie I added the first Cocaine Cowboys to my cue. Unfortunately, an earlier film about a true life murder called Raw Deal isn't available at Blockbuster. But I'll be watching for more films from Billy Corben.