“Based on a True Story.”
Director: Ted Demme
Cast: Johnny Depp, PenÃ©lope Cruz, Franka Potente
Synopsis: The story of George Jung, the man who established the American cocaine market in the 1970s.
If Ted Demme’s Blow teaches us anything, it’s that crime doesn’t pay (at least for nice guys, although you do have a lot of fun before things turn sour) or protect you from dodgy hair-dos, and that women aren’t to be trusted. George Jung, the real-life drug smuggler upon whose life Blow is based, fell victim to both his niceness and to two of the three important women in his life (and to those questionable hairstyles), and as a consequence he received a sixty year sentence for smuggling. He’s due to be released in November this year, having served twenty years of that sentence.
Blow starts out as a pale 1960s-set imitation of Goodfellas – Groovyfellas, if you like – with copious amounts of explanatory narration from Johnny Depp (Platoon, The Lone Ranger), who plays Jung as a cavalier adventurer worthy of our sneaking admiration, setting up a back story that sort-of explains how an ordinary boy from a working class family was lured into the life of a drug smuggler. His dad, Fred (Ray Liotta, strengthening the unflattering association with Goodfellas), was an honest, hard-working plumber whose business went down the pan (ahem) through no fault of his own, while his mother, Ermine, (Rachel Griffiths), is something of a shrew who is repeatedly walking out on her family. Fred’s assurances that ‘money isn’t real’ sound as naive to the childhood George as they do to you and me, and it’s at this point that he decides that, come what may, he’ll never end up like his Dad.
George’s early forays into the drug dealing scene take place on the sun-kissed California beaches, where he’s supplied by a gay hairdresser named Derek Foreal (Paul Reubens who, in a succession of wigs almost as frightening as those worn by Depp, is oddly reminiscent of that disguise-loving alien in American Dad), who is a contact of George’s girlfriend, Barbara (Franka Potente) the only woman in his life who doesn’t screw him over – and who pays for it with a terminal bout of cancer at a stupidly young age.
Jung’s increasing involvement in drugs mirrors in many ways the growing addiction of his – largely unseen – clientele. He begins small, dabbling in marijuana, the size of his stock increasing until he’s stealing planes to buy the stuff direct from the grower. Then, during a spell inside where he meets Diego Delgado (Jordi Molla — The Alamo), a Colombian with connections to the Medellin cartel, he gets turned on to cocaine in a big way. Eventually, however, George gets in out of his depth, and finds himself at risk of losing everything.
Blow is often compared to Goodfellas, and it’s true that, like Scorsese’s film, Blow follows the same plot structure (which, to be fair, was already well-worn back in the early 1990s) and refrains from showing its main figure committing a crime so heinous that the audience find it impossible to stay on his side. But unlike Goodfellas, Blow shies away from showing the violence inherent in the drugs trade (and, in particular, the Colombian cocaine trade to the US in the 1970s and 1980s) to the point where it almost looks like a viable career choice for the average school leaver. There are only four real instances of violence, one of which is designed to show what a bad ass Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis — 10,000BC) is, one of which is sort-of accidental, and two of which are committed against Jung. In a career that stretched across four decades, that seems a little on the thin side to me. And because Jung is portrayed as such a nice guy and the victim of violence and betrayal, it’s impossible to dislike him, even though it’s impossible to ignore the thread of disquiet that accompanies that feeling. After all, this is a guy who helped set countless thousands of people on the road to psychological dependency on cocaine, and probably physical addiction to other drugs when their habits escalated.
But then, that’s Hollywood and popular culture for you. We look down on honest fools like Fred Jung, and are only invited to admire those who earn quick riches from illegal activities – as long, of course as there’s a price to pay before the credits roll (at least for the moment). And let’s face it, even if Jung hadn’t ended up doing twenty years inside, being married to that evil harpy Mirtha Jung (Penelope Cruz) for a fraction of that time would have been punishment enough for any heinous crime.