[Screen It]


(2001) (Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz) (R)

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Drama: Hoping not to follow in his father's footsteps of working hard for little or no return, a young man takes to dealing drugs and coping with the various benefits and repercussions of doing so in this dramatic portrayal of real-life drug dealer George Jung.
After growing up watching his father, Fred (RAY LIOTTA) not get anywhere after working hard all of his life and dealing with his mother, Ermine (RACHEL GRIFFITHS), often walking out on them, George Jung (JOHNNY DEPP) and his best friend Tuna (ETHAN SUPLEE) decide to move from their Massachusetts hometown to sunny California in 1968.

There, they meet a free spirited young woman, Barbara (FRANKA POTENTE), and her friends who introduce them to the world of pot smoking. That eventually leads to them meeting Derek Foreal (PAUL REUBENS), a local dealer, when they decide to start selling pot themselves. They eventually become quite successful when another hometown friend, Kevin Dulli (MAX PERLICH), visits and tells them they could make a fortune selling to the east coast colleges. With Barbara, a stewardess, transporting the pot and Kevin dealing it back east, George and Tuna's business really takes off, especially when they start transporting the drugs directly from Mexico.

Things go great for George and his friends until he's busted in 1972. Skipping bail to care for Barbara, his now terminally ill girlfriend, George is eventually caught and sent to prison. Yet, this setback turns into opportunity when his cellmate, Diego Delgado (JORDI MOLLA), turns him onto the world of cocaine trafficking. Soon, George meets Pablo Escobar (CLIFF CURTIS), the powerful Columbian head of international cocaine trafficking, who wants George to be his dealer in the U.S., and then meets and marries Mirtha (PENELOPE CRUZ), an exotic beauty.

As the years pass, George tries to continue living his high lifestyle despite repeated run-ins with the law, being double-crossed by former acquaintances, his eventual estrangement from Mirtha and their young daughter, Kristina Sunshine Jung (EMMA ROBERTS), and his second thoughts about being in the drug business altogether.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
It's no big surprise that some of the youth of today would rather sell drugs of one sort or another than work for minimum wage flipping burgers or waiting tables. After all, why make forty or fifty dollars a night, pay taxes on that and deal with an ungrateful public when you could make hundreds or thousands in the same amount of time, pay nothing to Uncle Sam and live the high life where your customers are happy to see you.

Of course, flipping burgers won't land you in jail and waiting tables usually won't get you whacked, but many of today's "live fast and die young" youth seem willing to take the risk. If so, perhaps they should study the true case of George Jung. He was the American front man for Pablo Escobar's Medellin cartel who became the largest importer/dealer of cocaine in the 1970s and '80s - reportedly 85 percent of it passed through his hands - and found that you can only succeed in such a business for so long before the cops, feds, adversaries and even former partners do you in financially or lethally.

Viewers can now get the chance to experience just that with the release of "Blow," a well made and engaging telling of Jung's tale. Featuring Johnny Depp in the lead role and a solid supporting cast including Ray Liotta, Jordi Malla and Paul Reubens, the film is likely to remind some viewers of "Goodfellas," director Martin Scorsese's film about real-life mobster Henry Hill.

Like Scorsese's terrific 1990 film, this one has that retro epic feel to it, spans a number of years watching the rise and fall of its main character, and features both voice over narration and a period soundtrack to deliver exposition and the proper period feel to its viewers respectively.

Accordingly, many may accuse director Ted Demme ("Life," "Monument Avenue") of ripping off Scorsese in both look and feel, but hey, if you're going to copy/emulate/steal from someone else's work, you could do far worse than doing so from one of the cinema's masters.

To be fair, comparisons between this film and any other cinematic "epic" look at period decadence - such as "Goodfellas," "Scarface" or "Boogie Nights" - are inevitable since most all of them employ similar cinematic and storytelling techniques. In addition, since this film is based on real-life events that had to be crammed into a running time of around two hours, Demme should be cut some slack in such regards.

Working from a script by screenwriters Nick Cassavetes ("Unhook the Stars," director of "She's So Lovely") and David McKenna ("Get Carter," "American History X") -- who've adapted Bruce Porter's novel of the same name - Demme weaves an engaging tale of Jung's life from his early pot dealing days in California through the many riches and trials and tribulations of the coke business.

The true story obviously has all of the trappings of an interesting epic, and while such real-life details bog down the film's ending a bit by throwing off the conclusion of its otherwise solid dramatic arc, both those behind and in front of the camera deliver the goods in what's easily one of the best pictures so far this year.

While of the credit for that obviously belongs to Demme and his storytelling and visual style - Scorsese influenced or not - the one person who really makes the film work is Johnny Depp ("Sleepy Hollow," "Donnie Brasco"). I've always found him to be one of the more reliable and engaging actors working in the business today, and his performance here only reinforces that notion.

Playing the character over a span of two decades, Depp delivers a terrific take on the character, creating a credible opportunist who eventually realizes his daughter is the most important thing in his life, but nonetheless can't completely shake his addiction to the business and the thrill of the deal. It's a great role for Depp and he superbly creates a compelling, but not altogether sympathetic character.

For the most part, the film's supporting performances are also strong throughout. Jordi Molla ("Segunda Piel," "Jamon, Jamon") is good in his first American role as the protagonist's initial cocaine connection, while Paul Reubens ("Mystery Men") continues to impress while moving further away from his former Pee-wee Herman creation.

Ray Liotta ("Hannibal," "Turbulence"), who was the tremendous heart and soul of "Goodfellas," plays the other side of the fence here as the concerned and wise father, while Rachel Griffiths ("Me Myself I," "Hilary and Jackie") is good as his less forgiving or accepting wife. Ethan Suplee ("Dogma," "Chasing Amy") and Max Perlich ("Beautiful Girls," "Drugstore Cowboy") are solid as George's hometown friends, as is Franka Potente ("Run, Lola, Run," "Anatomie") in her brief role as his California girlfriend.

Just as gorgeous as ever, Penelope Cruz is nevertheless perhaps the film's weakest link in a role in which she was presumably cast to showcase her edgy, dramatic side. While she goes through the proper motions of portraying the belligerent, profanity spewing, coke snorting wife, something just doesn't feel right with Cruz's performance. It's the same nebulous cloud that hung over her roles in "All the Pretty Horses" and "Woman on Top," and while I can't put my finger on exactly what it is, her transition from Spanish film star to American leading lady isn't yet complete.

Although the film occasionally feels a bit episodic and perhaps relies too much on voice over narration to impart plot details and character motivation - both of which are necessary evils of cramming a great deal of story into only a few hours of screen time - and has somewhat of a weak ending - especially when compared to the rest of what transpires before it - it's near completely engaging and clearly benefits from a terrific performance by Depp in the lead role. While the comparisons to Scorsese's work on "Goodfellas" are inevitable and somewhat warranted, this is nonetheless a well-made and entertaining picture. "Blow" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 8, 2001 / Posted April 6, 2001

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