Blow (2001)

D: Ted Demme
S: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz

Stop me if you've heard this one. An ordinary guy gets involved in low-level drug dealing, then finds he's really good at it. He moves up the food chain to become a major player, losing friends and gaining enemies all the way (and discovering that some friends are enemies and not all enemies can't be friends.. you get the idea). He runs afoul of the police, suffers personal tragedy, and eventually learns that though crime pays in the short term, it never works out in the long run, especially on a personal level.

There's nothing in Blow that we haven't seen before in one form or another. Its true life account of the rise of George Jung (Johnny Depp) may be unfamiliar in itself, but the basic ingredients are the stuff of fiction and non-fiction stories told by a variety of filmmakers and writers throughout the twentieth century under the auspices of the gangster genre. The themes of the excesses of the American dream, the value (and limits) of friendship, and the cost of being successful in the rackets are generic flagpoles which hardly raise an eyebrow now either as themes or issues. A soundtrack packed with kickin' tunes from the era in which it is set (60s, 70s), period costumes, a sexy young star, lots of slow-motion tracking shots and an incessant voice over: these are the stylistic markers of the contemporary offshoot of the classic gangster movie probably still best exemplified by Goodfellas.

To be fair to all concerned, Blow is a perfectly adequate account of the events in question and it handles the themes coherently. Johnny Depp (Sleepy Hollow) is good in the lead, charting a path from entrepreneurial dope-smoker to cocaine kingpin through a wealth of personal angst which holds attention. Franka Potente (Run Lola Run) makes a sympathetic love interest during the initial stages, only to be replaced by the howlingly obvious performance of a generic standard character by Penelope Cruz. Support is provided by a nice turn by Paul Ruebens as a mid-range dealer who hooks Depp up at the beginning, and there's an interesting performance from Ray Liotta (a veteran of Goodfellas himself) as Depp's long-suffering but understanding father (Rachel Griffiths (Hilary & Jackie) is a less understanding mom).

It is hard to overcome the sense of deja vu all the same. This cautionary tale has little to tell us that we haven't heard before and though it does a perfectly good job of stating the obvious, obvious it is. Traffic at least had the merit of stylistic distinctiveness, and one or two surprising scenes. Blow is coiffed and manicured to the max, loaded with savvy attitude and a sense of humour. It keeps things safe and sexy in a way less likely to make audience's question the merits of the drug trade than wonder if there's any way to obtain the lifestyle without it. But despite Ted Demme's (Life) generally workmanlike direction, there is no impact here: no punch in the guts to make the story really worth hearing again. The result is likely to pass into the middle rank of post-Scorsese gangster movies without particular note.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.