Taking a cue from Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone, Ted Demme's "Blow" (IMDb listing) is a firecracker of a motion picture with a visual palette to match the vast colorful cast of characters that inhabit this drug-fueled film. Taking a closer look at the origins of the cocaine trade in America during the late 1970s, "Blow" isn't just another movie-of-the-week sob story of a half-wit who struck it rich through crime, then lost it all. Nor is it a cold, calculated journey through several perspectives of the drug world. "Blow" is a character study of a man's quest for the better life, and how much he would sacrifice to maintain that dream.
Based on a true story, "Blow" stars Johnny Depp as George Jung, a small-time crook who after experimenting with smuggling marijuana across the country decides to up the ante and begins trafficking cocaine to the rich and famous in Southern California. With the help of a Colombian friend and a celebrity hair stylist (Paul Reubens), Jung quickly becomes ridiculously wealthy and respected in the drug world. Jung also establishes one of the first connections between the deadly Colombian cartels and the United States connections that plague the country to this very day. Jung soon becomes a family man, marrying a rival's girlfriend (Penelope Cruz) and becoming a devoted father to his young daughter. Trying to maintain his lifestyle and keep his fantasy of fatherhood alive, Jung falls to great depths in his quest to work the angles.
Taking us one step deeper into the mind of a drug kingpin, "Blow" reaches somewhere very surprising: the heart. Demme, the screenplay (by David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes), and ultimately Johnny Depp, go to painstaking lengths to humanize Jung as a man first, then a relentless smuggler. A misguided father, Jung pains for his young daughter daily. She is the only sane element in Jung's insane lifestyle. Whereas "Traffic" was cold and literal, "Blow" is emotional and pure. Refusing to simply be swallowed up in the hyper style of the piece, "Blow" often takes deep breaths to explore Jung's relationship with his disapproving parents and his daughter who cannot find it inside her to trust him.
This is where the screenplay fully comes to life. By alternating between scenes of the drug-fueled lifestyle and then scenes of cold, hard reality, "Blow" sidesteps the chasms that hundreds of similarly themed films fall into. "Blow" avoids the "Boogie Nights" downward spiral arc. It keeps the pace and momentum of the film steady, never once letting the bottom drop out.
As Jung, Johnny Depp is rock solid throughout. He creates a multidimensional human being who desperately wants to avoid the middle-class life of his parents. Jung will go to great lengths to be rich, even sacrificing the ones he loves. Depp forcefully commands the picture with his attention to detail and his amazing transformation into Jung (evidence in the film's last shot of the real life George Jung). He even manages to contain his Boston accent throughout the film.
"Blow" is an ensemble piece with a crazy mixture of stars. If you stand back and look at it, the casting is very peculiar. Rachel Griffiths who is 33 and Ray Liotta who is 46 play Johnny Depp's parents in the film. Depp is 38 years old himself. With the help of makeup, Griffiths and Liotta pull it off, conveying a strong sense of loss over their son's choice of vocation. Penelope Cruz is saddled with a very thin role as Jung's addict wife. There is some fun in watching her normally crisp image rattled with lines of such unusual vulgarity, but when the coke clears, there is little to remember Cruz by. The rest of the cast is mostly made up of Ted Demme's usual acting troupe, and they give the edges of "Blow" a lived-in feel that supports Depp's performance immensely.
There will be accusations of plagiarism in Demme's visual style, and I would have to agree that "Blow" often resembles a less insistent "Goodfellas." Yet that is where the similarities end. In using different film stocks and various in-camera maneuvers, Demme keeps the story moving forward. Demme finds his footing right away and never allows the train to switch tracks.
"Blow" is not the kind of modern hipster classic I'm sure many people are expecting. Those in college can cancel plans to hang George Jung posters in their dorm room. This film reaches into different places. It touches rather than assaults. Maybe this isn't the story of Jung's life told honestly, but as a cinematic form of expression, "Blow" is solid and resounding.
Filmfodder Grade: A-