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'Blow' is a jarring look at a '70s drug cartel

Friday, April 06, 2001

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

Who says one man can't make a difference in the world?

George Jung is a superb -- if not exactly inspirational -- example. Before he made his mark and his fortune, cocaine was an esoteric elitist drug and minor cottage industry in the United States. With Jung and restless entrepreneurship, the demand of a gigantic market was linked to the supply of a Colombian drug cartel to make coke a multibillion-dollar international enterprise.


RATING: R for adult drug subject matter and language

STARRING: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Franka Potente, Paul Reubens





It's a true story, and "Blow" is director Ted Demme's potent rendering of it, with a terrific performance by Johnny Depp as a carefree East Coast hippie transplanted to the sun and marijuana fun of the even more carefree West Coast. George's career vocation is established early on: His daring trips to Puerto Vallarta and mounting skills as a pot dealer earn him lots of money but, soon enough, an arrest and jail term.

Danbury was less of a prison than a crime school. "I went in with a bachelor's degree in marijuana," he says, "and came out with a master's in cocaine." Cellmate and fellow graduate Diego (Jordi Molla), his new partner, hooks him up with the Colombians. He hooks himself up with another partner -- business and romantic -- in stewardess Barbara Buckley (Franka Potente), who knows exactly how much can fit into the two unchecked suitcases she is allotted on each flight, and makes good commercial use of that knowledge.

Rounding out the partnership are a small-plane pilot, a money man and the most crucial Derek (Paul Reubens), interior decorator to the stars -- the distributor sales connection who makes sure the coke gets into the right noses of Hollywood's "beautiful people" of the early 1970s.

"Sky's the limit!" he crows. "If it's accepted by actors and musicians, it's accepted by everybody."

In no time, they have a feeding frenzy on their hands and rooms full of cash, stacked in floor-to-ceiling cardboard boxes. But the lavishly hedonist lifestyle accompanying it (two employees are needed just to tend to his fleet of sports cars) puts George on the outs with his doggedly middle-class mom (Rachel Griffiths) and dad (Ray Liotta) -- mortified by the source of it.

It's his painful parental relationships and romance with Barbara that humanize George's story and the emotional as well as criminal impact of "Blow." Barbara's death from cancer and an ongoing series of busts lead us to empathize with the outlaw mastermind, whose later marriage to hot-blooded Mirtha (Penelope Cruz) leads him to quit while he's ahead (with $10 million) and brings him the daughter he adores but also an addicted wife and a final arrest that puts him behind bars for good.

Depp, resembling a young Harvey Keitel, is perfect in '70s bellbottoms and red leisure suit, although -- aside from a little paunch -- he never seems to age much with the passing years. Liotta is excellent as the sad, red-eyed, relatively understanding father he loves.

But Reubens, also known as Pee-wee Herman, is positively terrific as gay Derek -- one of many who sell him out along the way.

At its best, "Blow" has a "Godfather" quality in time and scope. It's the story of a supply-and-demand genius, the amoral epitome of American entrepreneurial capitalism -- who'll be in jail until 2015.

David McKenna's and Nick Cassavetes' screenplay is based on the book by Bruce Porter and elevated by the incredibly versatile Depp, whose evolution from pretty face to deeply intelligent, thoughtful actor in films like "Ed Wood" and "Chocolat" continues to develop -- and to amaze.

It doesn't take a genius to know -- from the lessons of Prohibition, if nothing else -- that where there's demand, there'll be supply. But nobody ever accused conservative politicians of being geniuses. There are no real heroes or villains -- just the 15 million or so Americans whose demand has made the supply de rigueur, despite the government's failed efforts over 35 years to stop it. The obvious alternative to enforcement and incarceration is government regulation and taxation, which would shut down the Colombia cartels and the smuggling/pushing network in a hurry.

Too simple. Too workable (with Holland as a model). Better to keep demonizing and chasing the sellers and users -- a "solution" that is as pure in futility as Colombian coke is in quality.

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