Even for those of us whose closest encounter with a drug dealer has been to purchase a $10 bag of marijuana from the proto-corporate sleaze who lived at the end of the dorm hall (believe me, I barely inhaled), Blow may come across as an oddly familiar experience. The movie, a scrupulously cautionary and ”journalistic” underworld thriller, traces the ambitious yet downbeat saga of George Jung, the man who, in the mid-1970s, had the daredevil cunning to introduce cocaine — at least, on a mass scale — into the whirling pleasure carnival of American life.
During the waning days of the hippie revolution, Jung, played with a wary minimalist swagger by Johnny Depp, has a good old time getting stoned, flirting with beach-babe stewardesses, and selling weed off the surfin’-chic Southern California coast, the nation’s unofficial capital of hedonistic excess. Spurred by his alliance with a pot-dealing hairdresser (Paul Reubens, mincing charismatically), Jung senses, before just about anyone else, that the market for cocaine is deep and wide and lucrative beyond words. He doesn’t just glimpse the market; he works out the logistics of how to feed it. In an era of low-tech border patrol, all that’s required is a few propeller planes (Jung steals his first one right out of the airport, as if he were hot-wiring a car), a lot of moxie, and a willingness to travel to places like Mexico and Colombia to establish contact with the local entrepreneurs, notably Pablo Escobar, who harvest, manufacture, and sell cocaine in quantities that would make Tony Montana weep into his stash.
Jung, unlike Timothy Leary, is no crackpot visionary of altered states. He’s a youth-culture capitalist who flashes his flowing sandy-blond hair and giant collars and aviator shades the way that your average businessman would sport a suit and briefcase. As the movie presents it, Jung’s no-bull eagerness as a salesman is exactly what ensures his downfall. He inspires trust in people, whom he then trusts in kind, not recognizing that a free market liberated from the pesky restrictions of law is also one unbounded by loyalty.
Directed by the newly serious Ted Demme (Beautiful Girls), from a script by David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes, who based it on Bruce Porter’s nonfiction account of George Jung’s life, Blow is a catchy and efficient entertainment, occasionally gripping in its detail; it’s fun to see the deadpan dread with which Depp hustles a suitcase full of coke through the airport. Yet the film carries little in the way of passion or revelatory charge. It’s like one of Scorsese’s rock-gilded, sliding-camera gangster exposes remade as a TV movie.
How many times, after all, have we seen these plastic-bagged kilos, these suitcases crammed with carefully stacked bills, these machine guns and goofy genius chemists and betrayals? In the last three decades, going back to Easy Rider and The French Connection, continuing through Scarface and Miami Vice (with its then-novel demimonde of natty Latin American hustlers), and on through GoodFellas, Traffic, and countless lesser crime movies and cop shows, drug dealers have become a mythic staple of American popular culture. They hover, in their outlaw anonymity, just off the center of a thousand pulp fictions, like Wall Street sharks who’ve dropped the pretense that they’re doing anything but serving appetite in the raw. Now, at last, a drug dealer makes it to the center of a movie, and he turns out to be a man who barely has a center.
The George Jung we see in Blow is a deft and disciplined opportunist driven by a profit motive the counterculture has barely caught on to. Depp gives one of his ultra-controlled, no-sweat performances, making it all but impossible to separate the character’s mondo-cool facade from the actor’s. In prison after a bust, Jung meets Diego Delgado (Jordi Molla), a dealer who becomes his partner and hooks him up with the young, not-yet-legendary Escobar (Cliff Curtis), who agrees to have the two of them distribute his product throughout the U.S. Escobar is a formidable force — he administers revenge murders like spankings — but Jung’s darkest challenge remains the sultry Mirtha (Penelope Cruz), a Colombian femme fatale who becomes his wife, his seething coke slut, and the mother of his beloved daughter.
At times, Depp seems to be flirting with disco-era impassivity as a Method challenge. Jung, as a character, never commits an action we don’t believe, yet there’s nothing remarkable about him — nothing screwy or starry-eyed or eccentric that would suggest a hero of tragic or even hauntingly humane dimensions. (Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights may have been a fool, but he was a fool with an oversize dream — a fleshpot star.) As he gets busted and betrayed, Jung is transformed from a svelte con artist to a pudgy has-been, but the movie says that all he ever really cared about was the daughter he couldn’t be there for. Is that all there is to it? At the end of Blow, we get a close-up photograph of the real George Jung, a look of perilous knowledge behind his twinkly black eyes. You may leave feeling as if you still want to see a movie about that man.