'The Legend of Cocaine Island' Might Be Netflix's Craziest Doc Ever

legend of cocaine island

If you knew where a wild new documentary about a real-life hunt for buried treasure could be streamed, would you queue it up? X marks the spot on Netflix, which has built up quite the cache of crazy nonfiction stories lately. That introductory query is a paraphrasing of the opening line from its latest true-crime gem, The Legend of Cocaine Island -- the title alone should pique the interest of any fan of sensational storytelling. And it delivers on whatever expectations you might have.

There's a lot of senseless swagger in the tone of The Legend of Cocaine Island. It's likely the first documentary to have slow-motion shots set to DJ Shadow and Run the Jewels' "Nobody Speak," a song usually reserved for movies like Deadpool 2 and every teen comedy trailer of late. As stylishly directed by Theo Love (Little Hope Was Arson), the film has it all: chase sequences, thrilling highway action, puking, double-crossing, entrapment, family drama, romance, marching band performances, obviously drugs and guns, and weirdest of all, a graphic turtle sex scene. Eventually, the central element of a buried stash of cocaine complete with a treasure map seems like the least remarkable part of the plot. 

The documentary begins with one of its most colorful characters addressing the viewer, asking if we'd dig up $2 million if we knew where the money was buried, and it's a question we're left with at the end of The Legend of Cocaine Island, first titled White Tide: The Legend of Culebra when it premiered at 2018's Tribeca Film Festival. But there's a big difference between a sack of cash in the ground and a hidden stash of drugs worth $2 million. Right? Even after seeing the consequences of one man's attempt to find such an alleged and indirect fortune, someone else out there is bound to try for themselves.

"Cocaine Island" refers to Isla Culebra, a central piece of an archipelago off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, where Julian Howell, a sea turtle conservationist, once found a waterproof suitcase filled with bags of coke -- at least 70lbs (or more than 30 kilos) of the stuff -- washed up on the shore. Neither interested in selling it nor turning it into the corrupt local authorities, he put the drugs in the ground and then years later, after moving to Florida (because of course this all happened in Florida), proceeded to drunkenly tell the story of this buried booty to anyone who'd listen, usually around a neighborhood bonfire. 

For most who'd hear it, the story of the cocaine buried on Culebra was merely a legend -- an entertaining tale from A Florida Man that, even if anyone was "gonna believe this shit," wasn't anything worth confirming. That is, until the Great Recession of the last decade hit construction company owner Rodney Hyden to a point of desperation. He and Andy Culpepper, a "functioning addict" who did odd jobs around Hyden's office, flew to Puerto Rico in an effort to get rich quick. Or at least as quick as possible for two guys who didn't really know the first thing about dealing drugs.

Among the dumb decisions that followed were mostly a matter of overlooking obvious needs, like, duh, a shovel to dig with. Hyden may have been inspired by cinematic antiheroes like "Tony Montono," as he mistakes the main character's name from Scarface, but he comes off more like any inexperienced rube over his head in any disorganized crime film (save for maybe Christian Slater's he's-so-cool character in True Romance). Like many of them, Hyden miraculously came away from the whole thing with his life.

legend of cocaine island
Hyden, awash in imaginary drug money. | Netflix

The story told in The Legend of Cocaine Island is nuts, but you can read all about it in a lengthy 2017 GQ article. What's fascinating enough on paper is far more outrageous in the documentary. Not only do you have multiple unreliable narrators -- the least trustworthy of which might be the government officials shrouded in shadow during their interview rather than the naïve protagonist trying to save face, or his junkie sidekick (who thinks Puerto Rico is another country), or the drug dealer concealing his face with a skeletal mask -- but all of the action is reenacted in a fairly farcical manner with Hyden broadly playing himself. (Sorry, Hollywood, no need for a remake of this already plenty-theatrical doc.)

Confessing to one's crimes on screen and admitting great shame in making such stupid choices is common in documentaries, and for many subjects, the process of sitting for a talking-head interview and relaying the dishonorable details is visibly arduous. But Hyden, aside from one moment of nearly tearful remorse, is clearly having a ball boasting about his tale, relaxing in his recliner and spitting tobacco into a Gatorade bottle, or jovially reciting Scarface lines at a bar. On top of it all, he's gone and acted out everything in well-produced madcap dramatic scenes as if he's in the burlesque equivalent of The Act of Killing

Until the end, when it's hinted that the illicit riches are still out there to be found. Don't worry, there are still some surprises I’m not spoiling, but the conclusion of The Legend of Cocaine Island has to be addressed for maybe being the first set-up of a potential sequel centering on someone who watched the movie and became inspired. Do any Netflix subscribers have the audacity to become the star of The Legend of Cocaine Island Too? As evident with this documentary, it's a mad, mad, mad, mad real world out here, and there's always someone courageously cocky (and sincerely stupid) enough to prove that they're more daring, if not stranger, than fiction.  

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Christopher Campbell is a freelance film editor and critic, and the founder of the documentary review site Nonfics. Follow him for opinions of all sorts of movies @thefilmcynic.