Rated R - Running Time: 2:04 - Released 4/6/01

The inner workings of the Pan-American drug trade was covered recently in Steven Soderbergh's multiple Oscar-nominated film Traffic; however, Ted Demme's Blow offers perhaps a more accessible view, with moments of humor and pathos interwoven into its decades-spanning timeline. It recounts the true story of California cocaine dealer George Jung, now serving a 60-year prison sentence after spending much of the 1970s and '80s operating a major distribution operation between Colombia and California while constantly running from the law. Jung, the main American connection for the famous Medellin drug cartel, is by most accounts (including his own) at least partially responsible for the huge acceleration of cocaine use in the U.S. in the late '70s. He is played by Johnny Depp, who goes through a dizzying array of hair styles and facial hair configurations, eventually donning an ill-fitting fat suit, but does little to age the character inside the foam rubber. Depp is credible, however, and probably a good deal more charismatic than the real Jung, a photo of whom is shown during the film's end credits.

The film, which is based on the book by Bruce Porter and adapted for the screen by David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes, is basically just a simple biography, or autobiography, with occasional narrative voiceovers by Depp. Director Demme (Life) does not seem to be judging his main character, but he pulls no punches about the downward spiral that can result from such a life of crime, especially in the drug business. Occasionally boasting some interesting cinematographic choices, Blow sticks mainly to the narrative, and relies heavily on Depp and his well-equipped supporting cast to pull the story off. A number of well felt, sometimes surprising performances are rendered by such actors as Ray Liotta and Rachel Griffiths (Hilary And Jackie) as George's parents, Franka Potente as his easygoing but terminally ill girlfriend, and Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Peewee Herman) as the flitty hairdresser (apparently an invented character) who serves as his stateside dealer. On the Colombian side, we see intense turns by Jordi Mollà as George's friend and prison cellmate Diego (based on Jung's real-life partner Carlos Lehder), who helped him move from pot to coke but eventually turned treacherous, Penélope Cruz as his fiery Colombian wife, and Cliff Curtis as legendary cocaine producer Pablo Escobar. With director Demme's help, they form a compelling look at the variegated group of people who propelled George Jung's life in the directions it took.

Seeing how Jung's life was affected, or enhanced, or ruined by his profession, depending on which part or which viewpoint one considers, I was reminded of Brian De Palma's Scarface, watching Al Pacino's Cuban character Tony Montana descend into decadence and madness, but the important difference here is that Demme kept the violence to a minimum. While Scarface ends in a blaze of gunfire, this film simply shrugs off its message with a poignant moment in George's prison yard. The deterioration of his relationship with his father, and then with his daughter, is moving, if not perfectly in line with Demme's otherwise straightforward approach. ****

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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