Ted Demme’s new gangster epic Blow opens with a step-by-step depiction of a big-time drug smuggling operation, from the harvesting of a Colombian coca field to the touchdown of a coke-laden cargo plane at an American airport, all played out as The Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” blasts away on the soundtrack. It’s meant to be energizing, but it isn’t—it’s dispiriting. It’s a tip-off that what’s coming is another post-Scorsese, post-Tarantino crime spree with the usual barrage of vintage rock songs and gangsters reveling in mountains of cash. But even with its flashy montages and jumpy tempos, Blow is no cinematic chili pepper. Instead it’s a sanctimonious and doughy look at a man who in the end just isn’t very interesting.
Today George Jung is being held in a federal prison from which he won’t be eligible for parole until 2015. His crime? After starting out as a penny-ante pot dealer in L.A.’s Manhattan Beach, he expanded his business by stages until he’d become the main conduit for cocaine from Pablo Escobar’s infamous Medellin cartel into the United States. (The movie points out that if you did any coke in the early ’80s, you probably have George Jung to thank for it.) Until the feds caught up with him for good, he remained blissfully insulated from the consequences of his actions by a freewheeling lifestyle and the king’s ransom that he’d accumulated. (He held $30 million in a Panamanian bank until it was appropriated by the government.) And according to the movie, he stood to have made a whole lot more if not for the awful luck he had with women. His first girlfriend, a stabilizing influence albeit a smuggling accomplice, died of cancer in her twenties. His mother turned him in to the police when he jumped bail after an early arrest. And his wife, a wealthy Colombian sexpot, brought on the arrest that caused him to lose the daughter on whom George pinned his last hopes for a normal life.
Nick Cassavetes’ screenplay seems to have been assembled on a conveyor belt, with each workman supplying a measured piece of humor or pathos, so that the stages of George Jung’s rise and fall are laid out as predictably as the Stations of the Cross. Stylistically Blow is a movie made by graverobbers, and the bodies that ought to be examined for missing parts include Brian De Palma’s remake of Scarface, Boogie Nights, Casino, and especially GoodFellas. One can see why Demme would look to his colleagues for guidance, for left to his own devices he can’t generate one honest emotion. It’s hard to think that anything could top the lachrymose slow-motion shots of a DEA agent toting away George’s daughter, but the meandering scene in which George hallucinates a prison-yard visit does just that. Despite its busy surface, Blow is a domesticated movie lacking both the illicit heat and mordant highs of a GoodFellas. At times its cuddly view of gangster life is nearly Disneyesque, as when the gang’s anthropomorphic little Cessna takes some trampoline-like bounces off the tarmac, or when George’s obese partner (Ethan Suplee) does a cannonball in the swimming pool. Certain key passages—such as the montage that’s supposed to express the evolution of George’s relationship with his wife—don’t work on any level.
Blow has trouble making us understand what makes George Jung tick, so that we’re left peering at the parade of period fashions and hairstyles. (Like Boogie Nights—and unlike GoodFellas—Blow invites us to feel superior by sneering at the styles of eras not long past.) Johnny Depp bestirs himself from his customary cataleptic state, perhaps because he realized he was the only person on the set that understood George Jung. Despite being smothered beneath pounds of body-padding and an array of wigs that Lon Chaney would’ve rejected as too theatrical, he bypasses the movie’s mealy-mouthed reasons for George’s ambition and offers the one motivation that makes any sense. His George treats the games he plays with the cops and cartels as a Machiavellian chess match; it’s the one sport played at a scale that’s capable of sustaining an intelligent man’s interest. “I’m good at what I do,” George tells his father at one point, and coming out of Depp’s mouth, it’s all the explanation that’s required.
But one of Blow’s quieter jokes undermines its premise that something unique in George Jung’s character sets him apart from other middle-class kids turned dealers—that he warrants a movie of his own. When George’s parents come to visit him, George and his dad stroll the grounds of his Colombian estate, and as they talk, a valet is seen in the background polishing an expensive sports car, until the frame widens to reveal a driveway crammed with vintage automobiles. It’s a letdown that George could be sated by such gauche little toys—it makes him as dull as De Palma’s Tony Montana. A man with half of the vision and mental restlessness that George supposedly has would spend his riches building a private Mount Palomar from which he could scout out the first interplanetary drug markets, before he’d blow it on a fleet of sports cars we never even see him driving.
Blow is so crowded with people and events that most of its outsized cast—including Penelope Cruz’s wraithlike wife, Paul Reubens’ gay hairdresser-cum-drug impresario, and a cluelessly miscast Rachel Griffiths as George’s termagant of a mother—can’t deliver more than paper-thin sketches of their characters. Ray Liotta gets the movie’s one heartfelt role as George’s dad, a man whose forgiving nature meets its ultimate test when his son achieves mind-blowing success as a criminal. Run Lola Run’s Franka Potente, in her first American movie, is dazzling as George’s young girlfriend, and Cliff Curtis’ charismatic work as the quietly ruthless Escobar makes you yearn to see what he would’ve done with the part if given more than a few minutes of screen time.
Flicks like Blow appeal to filmmakers because they offer the chance to unleash a lot of flash and style; if they appeal to audiences, it’s because their rhythms are swift and intoxicating, and they seem to be telling the grungy truth about things. The George Jungs of this world represent such a specialized sliver of human activity that, even more than most people, their stories are worth telling only if the filmmakers can find something new to say, or some new way of saying the old things, about them. Blow can’t do either. It doesn’t know what to do with George, and in the end we’re left with a modern Charles Foster Kane, caught in a cokehead’s version of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”
– Tom Block