There's every danger that "Blow" will drown in the wake of the Oscar-winning Traffic. Drug-trade theme, single-word title ... good luck finding a mass audience that will pay to see all of that again. It's too bad for filmmaker Ted Demme ("The Ref," Life), who spent five years adapting his true source material: author Bruce Porter's 1993 profile of dope smuggler George Jung (Johnny Depp), a key player in the American cocaine boom of the 1970s and 1980s.
Were "Blow" a better film, the loss would be as great for the rest of us. Porter's was a fun and informative read, but Demme's concept for its translation is slavish adherence to the model Martin Scorsese established in "GoodFellas," with a bit of the 1983 "Scarface" thrown in for flavor. So the movie version of George's checkered career begins with childhood flashbacks that occasionally pause in freeze-frame. Speaking in voice-over, the lead character tells us of his lifelong aspiration to get rich without actually working. Is it George Jung talking, or Henry Hill?
In the late 1960s, "Boston George" leaves his home state of Massachusetts and lands in California, where the lure of easy affluence motivates him to enter the pot trade. Within a few years, he cultivates a network of suppliers, buyers and airplane pilots that enables him to move up to cocaine and into an alliance with the dangerous Medellín cartel. He even picks up a genuine Colombian wife, Mirtha (Penelope Cruz, inheriting the baton of the volatile snow bunny laid down by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio after "Scarface"). As the cash rolls in, George never looks over his shoulder long enough to glimpse the sad fate that's gaining on him. Perhaps he's distracted by the movie's pounding soundtrack, a medley of rock hits left unpilfered by Scorcese or Cameron Crowe. Heard Ram Jam's "Black Betty" lately?
Screenwriters David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes take extreme liberties with Porter's material, which is fine. But their often nonsensical plot inventions make the surviving accuracies suspect by association. Demme magnifies the unreality with his needlessly broad direction, which includes the stunt casting of second-string celebs as Jung's shady connections. (See Paul "Pee-Wee Herman" Reubens and Bobcat Goldthwait snorting lines together!)
Depp is made to suffer a dodgy series of wigs that have him resembling David Spade, Metallica's James Hetfield and finally Kato Kaelin as the years advance. He's still more believable than castmate Ray Liotta -- another "GoodFellas" carry-over -- who's simply too baby-faced to pass for George's indulgent dad, even with silver-tinted tresses and a phony paunch. "You come from my body, remember?" Liotta's Fred Jung says to his boy, who looks no more than five years his junior.
That much of the film is apparently set on Mars doesn't detract from its instances of undeniable drama. When George tries to sneak a massive amount of dope past an airport customs official, our stomachs clench with his. We're even more disturbed when a Colombian criminal presses his new "gringo" associates for photos of their children and the addresses of their schools -- strictly as insurance, "si"? These scenes are the film at its most unnerving.
As for Depp, many of us would be satisfied to watch him watch paint dry. But his George is merely adequate, falling between verité and the knowing parody that drove his Ed Wood and Hunter S. Thompson. We can't blame Depp for being stymied by the script, which spits out George's more unsavory aspects. As depicted here, he's greedy but basically well-meaning, a martyr to outside forces -- usually female and/or Latin. (That bright idea about the kids' addresses? In real life, it came from George, not some subhuman South American.) Breaking philosophical ranks with Scorcese, Porter "et al," Demme seems to float the odd argument that coke kingpins aren't so bad as long as they're American. White's just his color, I guess.