It’s official: Nancy Reagan and her notorious “Just Say No” slogan have been defeated. The War on Drugs has become a thing of the past, only to be replaced by Hollywood’s reinterpretation of it. Last year’s critically acclaimed “Traffic” presented a gritty vision of the government’s failure to win the battle, allowing cocaine into the homes of even the most prominent Americans. Shot in muted tones with a handheld camera, “Traffic” presents a bleak and alarming statement to America: All of the time and money spent trying to keep drugs off of urban street corners and out of suburbia’s schools was in vain. But fear not, concerned moviegoer, this despair may be for naught. A new version of the drug war has arrived in “Blow,” a biopic of George Jung (Johnny Depp), the man who connected Pablo Escobar’s Colombian cocaine cartel to the United States, first delivering hundreds of kilos of pure cocaine to California, and then moving east.
The film opens with a how-to demonstration on the making of cocaine, set to “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin'” by those masters of hedonism, the Rolling Stones. The result is a movie that differs as much with “Traffic” as “Saving Private Ryan” did from “The Thin Red Line.”
“Blow,” the “Private Ryan” of the pair, tackles superficially what “Traffic” explores in depth. The portions of the film detailing the drug trade can be taught in Making Drug Movies 101: Man needs money. Man sees drug trade. Man enters and dominates drug trade. Man loses everything when government agents storm his house. Repeatedly. This from the gospel according to “Scarface.”
In this approach, “Blow” is far from unique. Directed by Ted Demme (the TV series “The Gun,” “The Ref”), it relies on the usual drug-movie features, including the murder of an informant and an explanation of how to successfully smuggle narcotics through customs. The one caveat is that “Blow” is based on a true story. George Jung controlled up to 85 percent of the cocaine that entered mainland America in the late 1970s and 1980s.
What “Blow” lacks in heft in its uninspired tour of drug trafficking, it makes up for in its exploration of interpersonal relationships. In truth, the tale of cocaine intrigues is only a vehicle for telling the story of Jung’s many failed personal relationships. The most central of these is his close bond with his father, Fred (Ray Liotta). George Jung idolizes his father, despite his failure as a monetary provider and longs only to please him. He drifts away from his father as drugs consume his life, but his idol never condemns him or his actions — the father loves his son as much as, if not more than, his son worships him.
The other important relationship Jung has is with his own daughter. In fact, this parent-child connection mirrors the tie between George and his father. When Kristina Sunshine Jung is born, George — aided by a cocaine induced heart-attack in the delivery room — finds himself reformed. He goes clean and removes himself from the drug trade completely. Like his father, he yearns to be a supportive role model, succeeding at being selfless while his wife turns inward. But unlike his father, Jung never truly accomplishes this. He fails to put enough distance between himself and his selfishness, ultimately derailing both of these links, taking away all that truly matters to Jung. Depp, Liotta and the actresses who portray Kristina at different ages play out these relationships with heart-wrenching power, making their central importance clear and forcing the drug story to the background.
The intensity of these familial struggles reduces other important pieces of the film to mere scenery as well. Only the parent-child relationships show any real progression, the rest being only a series of vignettes with people who, for the most part, fall away as Jung becomes more successful. Additionally, female characters are particularly underdeveloped in “Blow.” Jung’s mother (Rachel Griffiths) is able to be only money-hungry or, alternatively, embarrassed by her failure of a son. His Colombian wife, Mirtha (Penelope Cruz), is stuck vacillating between coke-addicted sex-fiend and manipulative bitch. Neither woman’s character is allowed to find a more human gray area between the two poles.
For all of these problems, “Blow” is saved by superb acting. Ray Liotta gives a show-stealing performance, which is highlighted by the strategic placement of his scenes throughout the film. “Run Lola Run”‘s red-haired heroine, Franka Potente, also turns in a solid, if not unexpected, performance as Barbie, Jung’s first girlfriend and one of the film’s tragic characters. Depp is, as always, very adept and believable, even adopting a solid Massachusetts accent. Cruz is the only weak link, not living up to the potential seen in 1999’s “All About My Mother.”
Regardless, “Blow” effectively explores the themes of loss, longing and regret. Neither the drug war nor its depiction in this film were a success — the perennially tardy U.S. government does not catch Jung until he is washed up and looking for a way out — but exploration of Jung’s personal highs and lows yield rewarding wisdom and hindsight. For both father and son, even good intentions often stand in the way of success. Fred can never transcend his love for his son and give him sorely needed guidance; for George, the only way he knows to provide for his daughter is through the drug trade. “My ambition far exceeded my talent,” Jung muses at the film’s conclusion, realizing this distance between intention and execution. The same can be said of “Blow,” which decides too late where its focus and heart should lie.