Worth A Look: 38.75%
Just Average: 21.25%
Pretty Crappy: 7.5%
13 reviews, 82 user ratings
by Andrew Howe
A few months ago the Australian government gave its blessing to a heroin shooting gallery, the mere suggestion of which would have most US politicians reaching for the respirator. The White House’s war on drugs leaves little room for shades of grey, which is bad news for three lobby groups: American drug pushers, American drug users, and American studio executives. A resounding defeat for the drug trade would rob Hollywood of one of its most popular genres, since the themes most closely associated with the business (violence, degradation, top-shelf police work and the rise and fall of Mr. Big) are guaranteed to appeal to anyone with a yen to take a danger-free walk on the wild side.Blow concerns itself with George Jung (Johnny Depp), a small-time marijuana peddler who trades his nickel-bags for a mountain of the finest Columbian nose-candy. Kicking off in the late 60’s, the script divides its time between Jung’s burgeoning business and his personal life, which encompasses his relationship with his parents (Ray Liotta and Rachel Griffiths), love interests (Franka Potente and Penelope Cruz), and the motley crew that he chooses to call friends.
For the first twenty minutes, it’s difficult to shake the impression that you’re watching a homage to the “helicopter” sequence from Goodfellas. The pounding rock soundtrack, voiceovers, and frenetic pace are hardly original, but it’s an entertaining ride that sets the scene in record time. Unfortunately, it locks you into a groove that builds unrealistic expectations for the rest of the film, which takes a nose-dive around the time that Jung mounts a greed-fuelled expedition to the dark end of the street.
The problem with drug dealers is that most of them don’t lead particularly interesting lives. When they say that they’re in the “import business” they ain’t joking, since most of their time is spent doing deals, flying in the dope and organising distribution channels. This is why films tend to concentrate on dealers who use their trigger fingers to deal with unwanted competition, since watching Tony Montana square off against an assassination squad is infinitely more entertaining than watching George Jung hammer out an agreement with a Columbian crime lord.
The problem with drug users is that most of them don’t lead particularly interesting lives either. Your average dope fiend spends his days lying around in a stupor, except when he’s on the streets looking for his next score. This is why films tend to concentrate on users who participate in snappy, amusing conversations (Gridlock’d, Trainspotting), sink to brain-numbing depths of degradation (Requiem for a Dream), or kill people for no reason, all of which is infinitely more entertaining than watching George Jung mumble inanities while getting high on his own supply.
If you were to rip all 10,000 feet of film from the cans, tape it to the wall, and throw a dart in the general direction, it’s an odds-on bet that the scene you select will depict one of the following events:
- George Jung dealing drugs;
- George Jung doing drugs;
- George Jung getting arrested for dealing and/or doing drugs;
- George Jung arguing with his wife;
- George Jung arguing with his mother;
- George Jung arguing with the authorities; or
- George Jung doing nothing in particular, while sporting a ridiculous hairstyle which makes him look like he’s just spent a few hours jamming with The Byrds (the 60’s), Crosby, Stills and Nash (early 70’s) or Nigel Tufnel from Spinal Tap (any other time), making it impossible to take him seriously.
I’m being glib, of course, but the fact remains that nothing of any real interest occurs for the majority of the film’s duration. George has no interest in killing anybody and (somewhat surprisingly) nobody has any interest in killing him, and since the mechanics of dope smuggling aren’t particularly intriguing we’re left with a film which is apparently intended to be a character study that just happens to be set against a backdrop of 70’s excess.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when you’ve got the writer responsible for American History X (David McKenna) on board. However, the words “based on a true story” prove to be his undoing – I’ve never met Mr. Jung, but I suspect McKenna’s efforts to paint him as a rather lifeless individual is simply the price of sticking to the facts.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if you’re not going to add a little colour to the subjects of your story, go shoot a documentary. Just because someone makes their living from an unusual profession doesn’t mean that they’re capable of sustaining our interest for a couple of hours, so you have to take a few liberties with the facts if you want to avoid viewer detachment. As it stands, we’re forced to watch Jung (who seems to be in practically every scene) act like an unappealing, spineless, semi-literate waste of space for the duration, and by the time the closing credits roll you’ll be wishing he really was the menace to society that the authorities made him out to be.
None of this should be taken as a criticism of Depp – Ed Wood and Dead Man laid any question about his acting ability to rest, but since he plays Jung as written he’s afforded little opportunity to shine. Cruz’s acting ability, on the other hand, is definitely open to debate, and being lumbered with the paper-thin role of Jung’s harridan wife will do little to raise her in anyone’s estimation.
Given Jung’s status as a charisma-free zone, it’s left to the supporting players to pick up the slack, and they come through in fine form. I’m not sure if casting Liotta (a.k.a. Henry Hill from Goodfellas) as Jung’s honest, hard-working father was someone’s idea of a joke, but it’s refreshing to see him take a break from playing lowlives, and he brings a noble resignation to the role which makes him the only character in the entire film who elicits the viewer’s support. Rachel Griffiths turns in a memorable performance as Jung’s embittered mother (Freud would have had a field day with their relationship), while Paul Reubens spits in the face of typecasting by playing another effeminate but loveable loser. The film would have been much improved if these characters were given sufficient room to move (not to mention Pablo Escobar who, from all accounts, led a rather interesting life), but the constraints of time and truth work against this wisdom.
Despite these flaws, the film cannot be classed as an abject failure. The opening sequence is worth the price of admission alone, and there are moments (the tragic conclusion to Jung’s hazy days of marijuana importation, anything featuring Ray Liotta, and the poignant final scene) which are as good as anything out there. The occasional dose of fast-cut editing shakes you from your slumber, and the soundtrack will have you jiving in your seat. Moreover, it represents a serious attempt to canvass a serious subject without recourse to blatant fabrication, and this automatically earns it a certain measure of respect.However, just because a film is sold as an “important” work doesn’t mean that we should automatically fall to our knees and worship it. It’s difficult to determine what its creators hoped to achieve – it’s only sporadically entertaining, there’s no message to speak of (apart from “drugs screw you up”, which isn’t a particularly momentous observation), the script is incapable of generating even a modicum of tension, and character studies don’t make the grade if the characters in question possess the depth of a backyard wading pool. It’s certainly a worthier undertaking than the current round of US summer fare, but everyone involved should have taken a lesson from George Jung – aspirations are well and good, but only if you've got the talent to back them up.
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originally posted: 08/22/01 18:51:32