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The Newest, Greatest Drug Flick

By J. F. Graham

Staff writer

Directed by Ted Demme

Written by David McKenna & Nick Cassavettes

Starring Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Paul Reubens, and Ray Liota

Rated R

If Scarface, Traffic, and Goodfellas sit at the top of the drug film genre, then they are going to have to make room for Blow at the top as well. Blow tells the rise and fall story of Massachusetts native George Jung (played by Johnny Depp), an ambitious and opportunistic character who capitalized on the cocaine craze of the seventies and early eighties.

By using Martin Scorsese’s gangster saga (Goodfellas) as an obvious model for the film’s storytelling, director Ted Demme, along with screenwriters David McKenna and Nick Cassavettes, bring to the screen a bio-pic with a somewhat more likeable, and at times funny, group of characters. Neither of these is an easy feat when the illegal drug trade is the subject.

Blow spares us the over-the-top violence seen in Goodfellas (which is still one of the most violent films ever made) and Scarface (just as violent) while never getting itself caught up in the large scale interwoven complexities of the bigger picture that Traffic did so well. What Director Ted Demme does do is keep the story line focused on Depp’s character while still giving us the up-close intensity of a business that only the power driven elite are capable of controlling.

Although Jung is never seen as ruthless as Tony Montana (the drug lord that Al Pacino created for Director Brian DePalma in Scarface) Depp does quietly portray Jung as a man just as obsessed with the job at hand, and is, in fact, “all about the money.” Demme’s film does come across as being somewhat biased. He seems desperately trying to portray Jung as a sympathetic character and sensitive family man who somehow just finds himself caught up in all the madness with no way out. One may find it difficult to truly empathize with Jung. After all, he is a drug dealer, and as the character of Jung puts it,“this is my choice.”

But it is Depp who handles this task and pulls it off brilliantly in the process, right to the film’s heartfelt final scene. Depp has never been better. In the past, he often played quirky cartoon-like character roles such as Edward Scissorhands, Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow, and director Ed Wood. Unfortunately these films, along with a few others, managed to place Depp in the under-rated actors category.

Recently, however, with strong serious performances in Donnie Brasco, Chocolat, Before Night Falls and now Blow, Depp has finally established himself as one of the best actors of his generation.

Ray Liotta, whose most memorable role is still Henry Hill in Goodfellas, plays the part of Depp’s hard-working blue-collar father. Depp and Liotta relate well together on screen and communicate through their characters’ bond: a father and son relationship that actually becomes much of the film’s heart and charm. The compassion that Liotta brings to the screen as Jung’s loving father is well delivered throughout the film.

Paul Reubens, whose Pee Wee Herman image is virtually gone, also turns in a surprise performance as a flamboyant California hairdresser and Jung’s west coast partner. Penelope Cruz’s performance is a bit short, yet she does manage to create some memorable scenes. Also look for Bobcat Goldthwait in a quick and funny cameo. But in the end it is Depp and Liotta that keep Blow moving.

Although the movie spans more than a 20-year period, it never lets us see the impact that cocaine actually had on the seventies “glam rock” crowd, the decadent subculture of the disco era, or the yuppie generation where everything was done to excess. However, we do get the messages through its central character, clever dialogue, a well-placed musical soundtrack, and a showcase of clothing and hairstyles that constantly lets us know what year(s) we are watching.

The fast-paced music video style of filmmaking that is sadly becoming all too common with a new generation of filmmakers these days is ever present in Blow. The camera is no longer just a steady observer; instead it has actually become an extra, taking on a character of its own, constantly jumping from place to place, moving in and out of focus, changing film stocks, and using grainy blurred distortion filters in the hopes that it will keep the attention of the modern day, short attention span movie audience.

Many of the new film directors can actually trace their roots back to directing music videos (David Fincher who directed Fight Club and Seven as well as director P.T. Anderson who shot Boogie Nights and Magnolia) and Blow’s Director just so happens to be one of them as well. Although Demme’s talents are not yet as polished as his Academy Award-winning cousin Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia), Ted Demme’s film Blow is a very good one, and does not need to rely on these techniques.