The Legend of Cocaine Island should have been the title of a Ghostface Killah masterpiece. Instead, it’s the title of Netflix’s airless, tone-deaf documentary about buried treasure and the man greedy enough to chase it.
RELEASE DATE: 3/29/2019
DIRECTOR: Theo Love
The true-crime doc about buried treasure is all flash, no substance.
The opening credits of Cocaine Island make it clear that the filmmakers can’t confirm the details of what they’re about to show. One interviewee explains the difference between stories told in the North and stories told in the South. In the North, a tale starts with, “Once upon a time…” In the South, it’s, “Y’all ain’t gonna believe this shit.” Director Theo Love and his team promise an unbelievable tale full of surprises. Instead, what follows is a 90-minute story of greed, sloppy criminals, and an unintentional critique of the justice system.
Fifteen years ago, a duffle bag full of bricks of cocaine washed ashore in Culebra, Puerto Rico. The man who found it, Julian Howell, buried the drugs until he figured out what to do with them. Enter Rodney Hyden, a 40-something man with a successful construction business. Hyden heard Julian’s story and was enamored of it. His family lived comfortably in Florida until the financial crisis hit in the late 2000s. With the stress of the recession and a pinch of curiosity curiosity, Hyden decided to go looking for the hidden bag.
With his Scarface fandom and general pop cultural knowledge as his guide, Hyden makes a mockery of himself and the drug trafficking trade. Hilariously overwrought reenactments show Hyden and his partners putting their plan in motion. One such reenactment shows Hyden, arms open wide, spinning and smiling at the sky as CGI dollar bills fall around him.
Hyden’s plan ends, as most Florida Man stories do, with his arrest. He faces a minimum mandatory sentence of 10 years, with the potential for more. Everyone in The Legend of Cocaine Island keeps talking about how crazy this all is, but the hype eventually proves to be the film’s downfall. There’s a question that bookends Cocaine Island: If you knew where $2 million was buried, would you go get it? Love and his collaborators assume the answer is yes, and that Hyden will work as an audience surrogate. It feels like they’re trying to create a sense of FOMO for viewers and convince them, unsuccessfully, of how cool this story is.
The filmmakers also try to paint Hyden as a sympathetic figure. His wife, who comes across in her interviews as materialistic and oblivious, weeps on-camera at one point. She laments that police should be out to stop the real criminals and not her husband, a first-time offender. She can’t avoid the straw man defense when she says police should be after the real drug addicts. It reeks of entitlement, at best. Through a loophole found by the judge, Hyden gets a sentence of 60 days and probation—for trying to smuggle $2 million of cocaine into the country. Did I mention Hyden is white?
In a country with prisons packed to the gills with drug offenders serving overly harsh sentences, the most logical response to Hyden’s sentence is anger—anger toward the system, and toward Hyden, who wanted to live out his Tony Montana fantasy. Not only does he get off easy, but he talks about how much he enjoys his probation, which he spends building homes for Habitat for Humanity. Were Hyden not white, The Legend of Cocaine Island would’ve been about how a man’s greed led him astray and straight to prison.
To top it all off, the documentary plays Hyden’s story as a farce. But while everyone is having a laugh at his criminal ineptitude as a criminal, his partner Dee says he was ready to rob or even kill Hyden, had their plan worked out. It should be a dark moment, but instead, it feels like a ploy for gravitas.
After inadvertently showing the bias and inherent contradictions of the justice system, The Legend of Cocaine Island still has one more trick up its sleeve. The film closes with Hyden and his associates surmising that this was all a setup. Not only did the police act dishonestly in targeting Hyden, they venture, but they never actually retrieved the cocaine buried on that Culebra beach. It’s a theory so laughably bad that I feel embarrassed writing it out now.
The Legend of Cocaine Island is a stylistic, fast-paced story that wants to woo you with its craziness. There’s no denying the film’s style. It’s shot in bright, warm colors, looks fun, and desperately wants to entertain. But the film’s ambitions are ankle-deep and unfulfilling. The Legend of Cocaine Island has the elements of an insightful documentary, but a strong finished product remains out of reach. It’s like knowing there’s a treasure out there that you just can’t find.
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