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Video Reviews: Top cocaine dealer is played as a sympathetic figure in 'Blow'

Friday, September 14, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

"Who the hell's Johnny Depp?" That's what George Jung said when he heard the name of the actor who would portray him in "Blow."

Guess they don't screen "Edward Scissorhands" or "Ed Wood" or "Donnie Brasco" much at the correctional facility in Otisville, N.Y. That's where Jung has been living since being busted for cocaine in what he had vowed would be his last score -- really. Even though he won't be serving his full 60-year sentence, he will be locked up until 2015. By then, he will be in his early 70s.

Jung has seen "Blow" ( ) and, predictably, loves it. "Johnny Depp blew my mind. He became me." In fact, Jung jokes, "If he could change places with me here now, I don't know, John, we could work something out."

What convict wouldn't want to be played by the handsome, sensitive, popular actor? Especially in this movie, which paints Jung (pronounced Young) as a largely sympathetic figure.

Sure, he claims to have been responsible for inventing the U.S. cocaine market by introducing it to Hollywood and watching it spread east and into the workaday world. "If you snorted cocaine in the late 1970s or early '80s, there was an 85 percent chance it came from us," Depp, as Jung, says in the voiceover.

But Jung is presented as a drug-smuggling innovator, a man who was generous to his crew and loyal to the business partners who would later betray him, a philosopher who mentions King Lear in a discussion with Colombian druglord Pablo Escobar and a person who dearly loves his daughter. And, yet, who proceeded to self-destruct and land in prison, divorced and estranged from his only child.

"I mortgaged my whole life for several moments of freedom. Who the hell does that?" he asks, in a jailhouse interview conducted with director Ted Demme. Jung admits he loved free will and adventure more than the people around him. It's great to love Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but it's lonely to be them, Jung says.

The Q&A with Jung is included on the DVD, which arrived this week as did the video. The disc is laden with good stuff, including a series of deleted scenes that lend insight into a jailhouse chapter of Jung's life.

Even without the extras, "Blow" is an intriguing tale of how a boy from Massachusetts became the first American to import drugs on a large scale, amass $60 million and lose it all. George's father (Ray Liotta) was a hard-working plumber who doted on his son and loved his wife (Rachel Griffiths), despite her periodic departures and shrill tirades about money.

Money doesn't matter -- it only seems to, George's father tells him. But he doesn't believe that, especially after he moves to California in the summer of 1968 and starts selling pot on the beach. With the help of his stewardess girlfriend (Franka Potente) and her flamboyant friend (Paul Reubens), George builds a pot empire that includes a very lucrative East Coast division.

He's busted in Chicago in 1972 with 660 pounds of marijuana and enters a federal correctional institute in Danbury, Conn. As he says in the narration, "Danbury wasn't a prison; it was a crime school. I went in with a bachelor of marijuana, came out with a doctorate of cocaine."

His cellmate (Jordi Molla) is from Colombia and hooks him up with Escobar, who is impressed by the American. Jung soon becomes a cocaine king, acquiring a beautiful, highstrung wife (Penelope Cruz), a nearly inhuman tolerance for the white powder, a daughter he dotes on, and an inability to stay clean or on the right side of the law for very long.

"Blow" is based on the book "Blow: How a Smalltown Boy Made $100 Million With the Medellin Cocaine Cartel and Lost It All" and director Demme approaches his subject with verve and wonder. He happily steps into a time machine and straps himself -- and his actors -- in, all the while keeping the music, period clothing and hairstyles coming.

In a way, Jung is presented as presiding over a larcenous lark, especially the period in the '60s when he first moves to California. We watch Escobar order an execution in Colombia and see the condemned man's head explode in blood but we never get a sense of the enormous, expensive hole that cocaine wore in the fabric of American life.

We do, however, see what it did to the Jung family. It caused his mother to turn in her son and bemoan the humiliation she felt. It caused his dying father to be forced to hear the voice of his 42-year-old son on a tape recorder instead of across a kitchen table. It caused Jung's wife to be a cokehead. And it caused Jung's daughter to spurn her father.

"Everything I love in my life goes away," Jung says in the movie, and it underscores that point by the poignant end. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had each other when they leapt off that cliff; Jung is alone in a prison yard with his regrets and memories of a fractured family.

"Blow" is rated R for pervasive drug content and language, some violence and sexuality.

Shifting sands

Blockbuster plans to eliminate a quarter of its tape inventory, along with select games, to make room for more DVDs, Video Business magazine reported this week. DVDs are more profitable for the chain, which explains the shift.

The chain also will begin selling DVD hardware in stores worldwide, which means you will be able to pick up the player with the discs you plan to watch. Expect the format to get its next big boost in November with the release of "Shrek," promising hours of extras on the DVD, and then in December as Christmas shoppers buy into the format.

Deadly dramas

Even the movies, with all their computer-generated effects, couldn't come up with anything as diabolical or deadly as the terrorists behind this week's virulent attack on the United States did.

In 1998, a movie called "The Siege" starred Denzel Washington as an FBI agent stationed in New York who discovers the city has become the prime target for Muslim terrorists.

It starts with a Brooklyn bus bombing that kills two dozen people and escalates from there -- targeting a Broadway theater, elementary school and location that hits home for Washington's character. Martial law eventually is declared and young men of Arab heritage are rounded up.

Annette Bening plays a woman who claims to be with the National Security Council and has close ties to the Mideast, while Bruce Willis is an arrogant general. "The Siege" provides much to think about -- martial law, the FBI vs. the CIA, hate crimes fed by fear-induced suspicion -- but does so with a heavy hand.

In the 1996 action film "Executive Decision," an Islamic terrorist hijacks an airborne 747 jet on which he has smuggled a deadly nerve gas that he hopes to release in Washington, D.C. It's up to a Special Forces squad led by Steven Seagal and, especially, a U.S. intelligence analyst (Kurt Russell) to foil it.

A plot is devised to sneak a rescue squad onto the plane in mid-air. If only real life allowed that sort of improbable and life-saving ending.

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