Screenplay : David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes (based on the book by Bruce Porter)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Johnny Depp (George Jung), Penelope Cruz (Mirtha), Franka Potente (Barbara), Paul Reubens (Derek Foreal), Jordi Molla (Diego Delgado), Ray Liotta (Fred Jung), Rachael Griffiths (Ermine Jung)
Ted Demme's Blow is based on the life story of George Jung (Johnny Depp), a kid from New England who started out selling dime bags of marijuana on the Southern California beach in the late 1960s and was eventually responsible for 85% of all the cocaine imports into the United States in the late 1970s and early '80s. The film is an aspiring epic that is much like George Jung himself, who admits in a voice-over narration near the end that his aspirations were greater than his talent.
Blow covers a lengthy span of George's life, roughly from his childhood in the late 1950s to his final incarceration in the mid-1990s. Director Ted Demme, known for comedies such as The Ref (1994), Beautiful Girls (1996), and Life (1999), has obviously taken notes while watching Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas (1990) and Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights (1997). He sticks as close as possible to the lurid rhythms of the modern criminal epic, punching up the narrative with lengthy Steadicam shots, freeze-frames, deadpan narration, and a selection of memorable classic rock tunes.
Yet, despite the careful attention to period décor (though George never seems to be able to shake off 1970s fashions, even in the 1990s) and the colorful cast of supporting characters, Blow never manages to be the epic it so aspires to. There is a significant lack of danger throughout the film, as if the whole thing is really nothing more than an elaborate game of capitalistic opportunism. There are a few startling moments, such as when George witnesses a point-blank execution at the Colombian ranch of a drug kingpin and a deal that goes wrong and nets George a bullet in the shoulder. Here we get the sense of what is really at stake in this game—life and death, not just dollar bills—and the film would have been better as a whole if those stakes had permeated the story more, thus making clearer the link between violence and George's particular capitalistic enterprise.
The film's narrative follows a fairly predictable series of events as George rises in power and notoriety in the drug trade. First dealing with a California hairdresser/drug dealer named Derek Foreal (Paul Reubens), he eventually winds up working for the notorious Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Along the way, there are small setbacks, including a few arrests and some jail time that, ironically, does nothing to deter his interest in drug dealing but instead sets him up with vital Colombia contacts. As George puts it, "I went in with a bachelor's in marijuana. I left with a doctorate in cocaine."
The screenplay by David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes (based on the book by journalist Bruce Porter, which was subtitled How a Smalltown Boy Made $100 Million With the Medellin Cocaine Cartel and Lost It All) is large in scope, but often comes up short in the crucial details that make boom-and-bust crime stories of this sort work on an emotional level. One thing the film does right, though, is the development of George's relationship with his father, Fred (Ray Liotta), an honest, hardworking man who labored 14 hours a day only to find himself bankrupt and at the mercy of his shrill, materialistic wife (Rachael Griffiths). The film establishes both George's respect for his honorable father and his desire never to emulate his father's position in life.
Although George's relationship with his father haunts everything he does (he wants so badly to live up to his father's ideals, even though he knows his criminal trade betrays everything about it), his other human relationships do not come across as well. Most truncated is his relationship with his wife, Mirtha (Penelope Cruz), a young Colombian woman whom George steals away from a rival dealer. The film does little to establish Mirtha's character, and Cruz ends up with the short end of the stick as her character is quickly reduced to a screeching, coke-snorting, materialistic hysteric who functions as little more than a sick mirror image of George's mother (the fact that the two women are directly responsible for George's jail time links them even more explicitly). One could almost read George's life as a series of failed relationships with women, a point driven home in the final moments as George languishes in prison and realizes that the one thing he wanted to do in life, have a healthy relationship with his daughter, has become his greatest failure.
The final moments of Blow have a certain poignancy that hit you at a gut level. The glamour and decadence of both George's ascent and descent in the criminal drug trade are largely overshadowed by his failure to be the kind of father he so respected his own father for being. It is striking and sad because it is a moment in which a deeply flawed man realizes that he has not lived up to that which he admired. George Jung can certainly be indicted for having played a key role in leading an entire generation down the dark road of cocaine addiction, but the sheer enormity of that burden of guilt renders it abstract and hazy. It's not the stuff of drama. Thus, it is the smaller human moments in Blow that cling to you when you leave the theater, and the rest is just context for the tragedy.
|Blow infinfilm DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by director Ted Demme and George Jung |
Video interviews with George Jung by director Ted Demme
Lost Paradise: Cocaine's Impact on Colombia 25-minute documentary
Addiction: Body and Soul 6-minute featurette
Trivia subtitle track
10 deleted scenes with director's commentary
Ted Demme's video production diary
Original theatrical trailer and teaser
Nikka Costa "Push and Pull" music video
Cast and crew filmographies
|Distributor||New Line Home Entertainment|
|As director Ted Demme mentions early in his audio commentary, Blow features a variety of visual styles that are meant to echo the various decades in which the movie takes place. This poses a challenge for the digital transfer, and New Line has done a wonderful job on this disc, rendering Blow in a clean, anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer that carefully preserves the various visual motifs. Thus, the early scenes that take place in the 1950s are purposefully washed out with a heavy emphasis on dominant colors, which gives it the look of Super-8 home-movie footage. This changes during the sequences in the 1960s and '70s, which use stylistic devices such as freeze-frames, quick zooms, and dissolves to suggest that time period. Overall, the film looks great, with excellent detail and luminous color saturation.|
|Blow features a moderately aggressive Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack. Certain sounds such as planes flying overhead or cars driving across the screen take full advantage of the surround channels and the use of imaging and directionality. The choice cuts of American rock music that dominate the soundtrack are also very well rendered, with good separation and a crystal-clear sound that makes them sound like they were recorded yesterday.|
| Blow is the third release of New Line's innovative infinifilm series, which offers a clever interface that allows the viewer to engage with the supplements while watching the movie. For those who haven't used an infinifilm disc before, here's how it work: If you choose to watch the infinifilm version of the movie, at various times a blue menu bar appears along the bottom half of the screen with one or two supplement options that relate to the scene you're watching. By selecting one of the options, you are temporarily taken out of the movie and into the particular part of the supplement (the menu bar not only tells you what the supplement is, but also how long it runs). And, as with the other inifinifilm discs, everything on the Blow DVD is in anamorphic widescreen. |
However, you don't have to engage the supplements in this fashion. The infinifilm DVD works like a regular DVD, as well, where you can watch the supplements separately. And, as with New Line's other inifinfilm discs, there are a lot of supplements to go through.
Director Ted Demme contributes an articulate and interesting screen-specific audio commentary that is interspersed with brief recollections by George Jung, who was obviously recorded separately seeing as how he is incarcerated until 2015. Demme is well-spoken and has a good sense of humor, and he is generous in giving credit to others where the credit is due (he is also doesn't mind pointing out the occasional gaffe). Demme offers additional behind-the-scenes dish with his video diary shot during the film's production, and George Jung also appears in video interviews conducted in prison, in which he speaks frankly about his life and how he feels about the movie.
Many of the supplements on this disc are designed to give historical context to the movie's setting. As the title implies, the 25-minute documentary Lost Paradise: Cocaine's Impact on Colombia is an educational, if not particularly enthralling, look at the effect the cocaine industry has had on Colombia. Addiction: Body and Soul is a brief, six-minute examination of drug addiction. The disc also gives you the option of turning on a trivia subtitle track while watching the film.
Also included are 10 deleted scenes, including an alternate opening, with optional commentary by Ted Demme. Many of these scenes are quite good and add additional context to the story as well as tie up loose ends (such as what happens to Pablo). In the commentary, Demme explains what he likes about the scenes but also why they ultimately had to be cut. An interesting inclusion on this disc is roughly 10 minutes of "Character Outtakes," in which the actors speak to the camera in character and talk about their relationships with George to establish motivations and emotions.
Lastly, the disc includes Nikka Costa's "Push and Pull" music video, the movie's extremely effective teaser trailer and full theatrical trailer (both in 5.1 surround), and the standard cast and crew filmographies. Those with DVD-ROM access can enjoy script-to-screen access to the film and the original web site.
Copyright ©2001 James Kendrick