Dir. Ted Demme
Written by: David McKenna, Nick Cassavetes (from the book by Bruce Porter)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Jordi Molla, Paul Reubens, Ray Liotta
The late 1990s and early 2000s saw a glut of movies about the illicit drug trade hitting American theaters. From harrowing looks at heroin addiction like Requiem For A Dream, to thoughtful examinations of the intricacies and failures of the “war on drugs” like Traffic, to gritty police procedurals such as Narc, the subject matter of these films was as varied as their overall quality. It would seem, however, that Hollywood was addicted to drugs, and that audiences were looking for a fix as well. Looking at my shelf, I certainly tended toward enjoying these types of movies it seems. I owned all three of the aforementioned films, plus other druggy classics from the 90s like Trainspotting and New Jack City. Blow slotted in nicely alongside some of these other films, it wasn’t as gritty or real as something like Traffic, but it made for a slick, entertaining movie about the life of one of the biggest cocaine traffickers in history. I remember enjoying the film a lot as a teen, but watching it for this post for the first time in a decade, Blow mostly felt hollow and definitely doesn’t stand up with the rest of the movies mentioned here.
Blow is a biopic about the life of George Jung (Depp), America’s biggest cocaine trafficker in the 1970s and 1980s. Jung was a part of the infamous Medellin cartel, headed by Pablo Escobar, and he is almost single-handedly responsible for the cocaine craze of the 1980s. It was once estimated that some 85% of the cocaine imported in that decade was brought across the border by Jung. The film opens with Jung’s childhood in Massachusetts, where his hard-working but poor father, Fred (Liotta), teaches him the lesson that money is not important, despite the materialistic instincts of his mother. It would seem that the lesson didn’t stick, because as soon as Jung is able, he and his friend Tuna (Ethan Suplee) move to California to pursue bigger and better things, and end up becoming local celebrities selling high-grade marijuana. Jung’s ambition lands him in prison when he is busted with over 600 pounds of marijuana, and it is here that he meets Diego (Molla) who offers to introduce him to his Columbian friends after they get out of prison. Diego makes the introduction to Escobar, and the rest, as they say, is history. Jung becomes a bigger trafficker than ever, making millions in the cocaine trade, until the birth of his daughter causes him to have an epiphany and a change of heart, and he promises his wife Mertha (Cruz) that he will get out of the life. However, Jung is unable to fly straight, and his continued dalliances with cocaine end up robbing him of his life and his family, and putting him in prison for a 60-year sentence. Jung was released from prison in 2014, but the film ends with him still locked up, having never reconciled with his daughter.
As crime films go, Blow follows a fairly standard arc. The protagonist comes up from nothing, is introduced to the criminal underworld, finds that he has a particular knack for criminality, and, ultimately, flies too close to the Sun and must pay the consequences. It borrows heavily from established classics of the genre, in particular Scorsese’s Goodfellas. The casting of Liotta as Jung’s father only serves as a constant reminder of that other, better film. It isn’t that Blow is a bad film, necessarily. Most films would pale in comparison to Goodfellas, as it’s universally recognized as one of the best crime movies ever made. It’s just that Blow lacks the depth of some of the better films in the genre. It is perfectly fine entertainment, but its over-reliance on voice over narration and montage makes the audience feel like we’re never really getting close to the real George Jung. Too often the film opts to tell, rather than show, causing it to feel light and insubstantial, like a cheap knock off. Rarely does the film deviate from the standard path set for it by the generic conventions of storytelling, and even its more inspired sequences feel predictable because it is a story that’s been told so many times before. I think a big problem might just be that George Jung is not an inherently interesting subject for a biopic. There’s no attempt to portray him as morally conflicted, or even a suggestion that the toll that his product can take on lives has ever even occurred to him. In the film, Jung seems purely interested in acquiring money and possessions, and he’s motivated by little else. He’s a largely influential and notorious figure, but he doesn’t seem to have any particular personality traits or quirks that make him a noteworthy subject.
Johnny Depp tries to breathe some life into Jung, and he does a nice job in the film of making Jung somewhat relatable and interesting. This film was released just a couple of years before the first Pirates of the Caribbean film would propel Depp into absolute mega-stardom and divert the direction of his acting career, and it’s one of the last movies where he isn’t playing “Johnny Depp playing Character X.” I’m not a huge fan of Depp as an actor, particularly not his post-Pirates work, but he does good work as Jung. The part doesn’t require him to do much dramatic heavy lifting, as it doesn’t really delve much into Jung’s psychology or emotion, but he feels genuine towards the end of the film when he is attempting to resolve the broken relationship with his daughter. By this point, Jung has lost everything, and Depp plays him with a kind of calm acceptance, rather than desperation. The film’s final scene is supposed to be the emotional climax, when it’s revealed that an aging Jung, sentenced to 60 years in prison, has never received a visit from his daughter. It’s a shame that the script didn’t provide enough opportunity for Depp to fully flesh out the character or his relationships, because this emotional payoff falls flat entirely.
The rest of the cast performs admirably, for the most part. I like Ethan Suplee in just about everything he’s done, but he is largely used as wallpaper in the film, dropping out of the story entirely by the middle. Paul Reubens is great as a flamboyantly gay hairdresser who introduces Jung to the world of marijuana sales. The role was a big comeback for Reubens after his popularity had declined in the 1990s following his arrest for indecent exposure. He brings the same manic energy to the role of Derek Foreal that he brought to his signature role as Pee Wee, although for a much different audience. The biggest disappointment in the movie is probably Cruz, as Jung’s wife. She isn’t really on screen much, as her character isn’t introduced until over halfway through the film. She plays a bigger role towards the end of the film, but her performance is largely forgettable. She rebounds for a scene late in the film where reconciles with her former husband, but her role is otherwise too light.
The film doubles down on its lead actor and protagonist, to the detriment of its overall success. It chooses to highlight style over substance, with multiple showy montages set to classic rock staples. These sequences are fun, and they’re probably the best parts of the movie, but, like I mentioned before, they feel preordained and derivative. Watching Jung and Diego do blow and try to find places in their apartment to stash boxes upon boxes of money while “Blinded by the Light” by ELO plays in the background is fun, but it isn’t particularly inspired, nor is “That Smell” by Lynyrd Skynyrd underlining Jung’s descent into full-blown cocaine addiction. Scorsese is probably the best when it comes to taking iconic classic rock songs and pairing them with memorable filmic images. He’s been doing it his whole career. It’s obvious that Ted Demme is borrowing heavily from that style, but in being so literal with his song choices, he misses a lot of the point of the exercise.
Ultimately, Blow is a fine movie. It is entertaining, it’s well shot, and generally well-acted, to boot. It’s just tough to want to watch Blow when there are so many other films from the same time period that deal with similar subject matter in a more interesting or more in-depth manner. Blow was only modestly successful at the box office, and it currently has an approval rating of just over 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, which feels about right. It’s certainly not a bad movie, but it isn’t very good either, or very memorable. Honestly, I think that the experience of watching Blow is pretty similar to the experience of using its namesake drug. It’s fun while you’re doing it, but whenever the effects wears off, you’re really not left with a whole lot.