With "Blow", director Ted Demme ("Life") takes a different approach than the other two drug-themed films that have appeared in recent months. Whereas "Requiem for a Dream" was a visceral and no-holds-barred look at the downward spiral of addiction, and "Traffic" clinically dissected how the United States' 'war on drugs' has been compromised at every step along the way, "Blow" uses the true story of George Jung's rise and fall in the cocaine drug trade more as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unbridled avarice. Imagine "Wall Street" on drugs, if you will.
Johnny Depp (seen recently in "Chocolat") plays George Jung, who grows up the only child of a working class family in Massachusetts. Throughout his childhood, he witnesses the seemingly never-ending battles over money between his hardworking father (Ray Liotta of "Heartbreakers") and rapacious mother (Rachel Griffiths of "Hilary and Jackie"), which culminates in his father having to declare bankruptcy after his business falters. As a result of his childhood experiences, the young George vows never to be poor, which becomes a core philosophy in his life.
Upon entering adulthood, George does some California dreamin' with his best friend Tuna (Ethan Suplee of "Road Trip"), where they lie around on the beach, meet plenty of bikini-clad stewardesses (including George's first love, Barbara, played by Franka Potente of "Run Lola Run"), and are introduced to pot. The two young men end up enjoying weed so much that they decide to go into business selling the stuff in partnership with Derek (Paul Reubens of "Mystery Men"), a friend of Barbara's who deals drugs out of his hair salon. Pretty soon, George and Tuna are sourcing their marijuana directly from growers in Mexico, selling it for top dollar on both ends of the country, and raking in thousands of dollars per day. Unfortunately, this lucrative business comes crashing to a halt when George is arrested in Chicago.
While in prison, George becomes fast friends with a fellow prisoner from Colombia (Jordi Mollà), who educates him in the mechanics of the budding cocaine trade-- as George explains, he 'went in with a Bachelors of Marijuana, and came out with a Doctorate in Cocaine'. Upon release, George is hooked up with Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis of "Three Kings"), head of the powerful Medellin drug cartel, and becomes the main distributor for the United States. With the help of his old pal Derek, who gets the new drug in front of the Hollywood elite, George rides the wave of the cocaine craze of the late Seventies and early Eighties, supplying about 85% of the cocaine within the United States. With millions of dollars rolling in, a trophy wife (Penélope Cruz of "All the Pretty Horses"), and the birth of his daughter Christine, George is living large.
Alas, like the experience of numerous upstarts in the tech sector in the past year, the bubble ends up bursting for George and his small fiefdom. He quickly loses control of his distribution channels to other eager players in the cartel, and his prominence in the drug trade attracts the attention of the FBI and DEA. But unlike Bud Fox of "Wall Street", there is no opportunity for redemption in the dog-eat-dog world of the drug trade, a life rife with obligations that George is never quite able to escape. Betrayed by everyone he knows, and ultimately betraying the people he loves, George ends up a lonely and pathetic figure, with little more than the infamy of being the man that unleashed the scourge of cocaine on an entire nation.
Based on the Bruce Porter book of the same name, "Blow" is remarkable and poignant in how it portrays the drug-dealing career of an otherwise despicable individual. Covering approximately three decades, Ted Demme's direction is never lagging, using snappy direction and pacing in presenting George's rise and fall, while making good use of period music and cinematography. Playing George, Depp delivers what could be his best role ever, demonstrating considerable dramatic range, portraying a naive but ambitious young man who ultimately becomes broken and lonely in the winter of his life, haunted by the mistakes of a life squandered in the pursuit of the wrong things. This is most effectively illustrated in two key relationships that George has (and ends up destroying) with his father and his daughter Christine (Ashley Edner), the two people who mattered the most in his life-- it is through these relationships that George realizes his folly.
Rounding out this well-acted piece are a number of memorable and solid performances. Liotta eschews his 'psycho' rep to turn in a warm and touching performance as George's ever-supportive father, while Griffiths is an austere counterpoint, a bitter woman with little joy or love for others in her life. Cruz, a Spanish actress who has been making a name for herself in Hollywood in the past year, plays her darkest role yet, as George's mercurial and self-centered wife. Potente, a German actress known mainly to North American audiences from "Run Lola Run", is charismatic as George's first girlfriend, while Reubens stays firmly in his comic roots as a drug dealer with an undisclosed sexual orientation.
With some terrific performances (particularly Johnny Depp), a well-written script, and a well-oiled production, "Blow" is the type of film that should be remembered for the 2001 Oscar season. While you may not agree with the things he did in his life, particularly his pivotal role in turning the United States into the world's single largest market for cocaine, you can at least appreciate the cautionary message embodied by the photograph of the real George Jung that appears at the end of the film-- the image of a desolate existence fashioned by the misguided priorities of youth.