We hear a lot about Colombia's cocaine trade; for a while there, the MedellÃn cartel was the Hollywood villain du jour. But we've heard relatively little about the country's only slightly more legitimate emerald business, which resembles nothing so much as a wide-open town in our own Wild West, with barroom brawls, shootouts in the streets and range wars where the land being fought over is a mountain veined with white calcite, the mineral from which the precious gems are extracted. At one time, 90% of the world's emeralds were coming out of Colombia, many of them smuggled out via the black market. But most were exported by self-made men like Eishy Hayata, a Japanese American who, anticipating Tony Montana in Scarface, washed ashore in a Land of Opportunity, took one look around and went to work amassing a fortune. The difference is that Hayata lived to tell his story.
Such as it is. A vanity project, Emerald Cowboy was written and, I believe, paid for by Hayata, who also stars as the older version of himself. That the guy who plays the younger version of Hayata (Luis Velasco) seems to have a different ethnic heritage altogether makes us wonder exactly what the filmmakers are up to. Was this as close as they could get? Or did Hayata want to create the impression that he's a native son of his adopted country? Either way, the effect is Brechtian, causing us to suspend our suspension of disbelief. Likewise, the acting is distractingly bad. The movie's supposed to be a docudrama, complete with jittery camera, but the performances are either over the top or under the bottom, so flat you wonder whether the actor heard the director say "Action." Even Hayata seems to have no real understanding of the character he's playing.
That may be because the character is pure wish-fulfillment fantasy -- Hayata as he would like to see himself. If the movie is to be believed, he became Colombia's "Emerald Czar" by 1) working hard, 2) paying attention and 3) standing up for what he believes in. We watch as he heroically refuses to go into the cocaine trade, refuses to be pushed around by the corrupt labor unions and engages in a gun battle with guerrillas who come pouring down the mountainside, looking for a piece of the action. When the so-called Green War was at its height, everybody wanted a piece of the action. And if Hayata got his without soiling his reputation, more power to him. The thing is, unsoiled reputations aren't the stuff of which interesting movies are made. Hayata could have blown the lid off Colombia's emerald business. Instead, he's compiled a cinematic scrapbook. It's Scarface directed by Scarface.