Johnny Depp stars as George Jung, the only child of a working class man (Ray Liotta) struggling to make ends meet and a selfish woman (Rachel Griffith) who resents him for their modest lifestyle. Jung figures he’ll have none of that, so he moves to sunny California, where he gets into beaches, hot girls… and pot. It’s the late Sixties, and everyone seems to be getting high, hence Jung figures there’s a fortune to be made in dealing dope, which is fine since he doesn’t wanna work 9 to 5. Before long, he is indeed making big money and he start getting more ambitious. Why stick to the West Coast when he can make a bundle all over the country? Why settle for retail revenue when he could get your marijuana right from the Mexico fields?
“Blow” was directed by Ted Demme, which comes as a surprise, as Demme is otherwise known for little movies like the forgettable Eddie Murphy vehicle “Life”, the so-so hostage comedy “The Ref” (which did feature Kevin Spacey as a disgruntled, wisecracking suburbian family man 5 years before American Beauty) and the little seen “Monument Avenue”. His “Beautiful Girls” is quite insightful and uplifting (especially in the gutsy way it allows Timothy Hutton to have a crush on a 13 year old Nathalie Portman without making it cheap or creepy), but none of Demme’s previous work could prepare you for the rpic scope of “Blow”. It was written by David McKenna (“American History X”) and Nick Cassavetes, based on the Bruce Porter non-fiction book “Blow: How a small-town boy made $100 million with the Medellin cartel and lost it all”. The real George Jung actually acted as an advisor on the film, giving writers, director and Depp pointers from his penitentiary cell.
“Blow” is hardly perfect, but it does suck you in and involve you in the journey of this Everyman who Forrest Gumps his way up the drug trafficking food chain. The film feels somehow derivative, coming after so many other movies following the rise and fall of criminals (notable influences of Demme are De Palma’s Scarface and Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino), but it is crafted with enough style and energy to keep us hooked, right from the awesome opening sequence following the journey of “blow” from the leaves coca plants in Colombian fields to its final destination across the States borders, all with the Rolling Stones blasting on the soundtrack. Then come the childhood scenes establishing how Jung came to yearn for a life more gratifying than his father’s. Demme and cinematographer Ellen Kuras make interesting use of various film stocks and retro color coding, as the quality of images improves as years go by.
The California scenes are very enjoyable in the way it all seems so simple and fun. At that time, Jung’s life seems mighty tempting. He is surrounded by a colorful cast of friends and partners including Tuna (played by Ethan Suplee, the fat guy in “Remember the Titans), stewardess girlfriend Barbie (Franke Potente, the German actress from “Run Lola Run”, who sounds surprisingly American here), iffy plane pilot Dooley (Max Perlich) and gay hairdresser Derek Foreal (played with malicious enthusiasm by Paul “Pee Wee” Reubens, who steals every single scene he’s in). Jung himself is well portrayed by the versatile Johnny Depp. Even though most of his performance is hidden behind ugly long hair and giant sunglasses, makes Jung into an intriguing, likable figure. Okay, what he does is illegal, but pot isn’t evil or anything, it just makes people happy.
Things change when Jung is sent to jail, arriving with “a bachelor in pot and leaving with a doctorate in cocaine”, as well as a cellmate turned partner, Diego (Jordi Mollà), who takes him to his Colombian homeland to meet Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis), who controls nearly all of the drug cartels. And just like that, George the gringo finds himself becoming Escobar’s connection to the United States, the guy through which 85% of all cocaine goes through before reaching American discos. Suddenly the stakes are much higher and things aren’t as fun as they were, but dramatically, it works for the film. All through the movie’s middle section, there’s a sense of danger, of imminent and inevitable doom. Depp is now mostly apart from his old friends, stuck instead in between various hot-headed Latin Americans, starting with his Colombian trophy wife Mirtha, who loves money and coke a bit too much and ends up making him as miserable as his mom made his dad. Mirtha is played by Spanish actress Penelope Cruz, whom a lot of people can’t stand, but I actually found her not only gorgeous but also very convincing in the role.
The script sometimes meanders, it never approaches any kind of profundity and from what I’ve read, it takes a lot of liberties with historical facts. In any case, it’s not too politically correct for a film to portray sympathetically a drug dealer without showing the countless lives his mass introduction of cocaine to America must have destroyed, but you gotta admit that Jung’s tale is enthralling. Unfortunately, the film really falls apart in the last act. What goes up must come down, and Jung eventually loses it all and, sadly, the film loses most of its drive at the same time, settling into dull sentimentality. It dwells way too long on Jung’s oh so sad relationship with his daughter and we’re made to feel sorry for Jung, but it doesn’t work. Yes, things get depressing, but in a forced way, with sappy music, lousy make-up and cheap effects like the final “wishful thinking” sequence (and what about the bizarre way it ends on a shot of the real Jung, looking like one sad deadbeat with his eternally lame haircut). Try as he might, Demme is no Scorsese, and to use a declaration from Jung, his “ambition far exceeds its talent”. Still, “Blow” has enough fine moments to be worth seeing.