The Johnny Depp Archive

Blow (2001)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Rachel Griffiths, Ray Liotta, Franka Potente, Jordi MollÓ

Directed by: Ted Demme

Rating: 1 2 3 4 and a half

Even without the presence of Johnny Depp, Blow is the kind of film I love. Like Scarface, Goodfellas, The People vs Larry Flynt and Boogie Nights, it's one of those awesome, decade spanning biopics that charts the rise and inevitable fall of an infamous character, in this case notorious US drug smuggler George Jung, who pretty much single-handedly established the American cocaine market in the 1970s.

Ray Liotta as George Jung's father

Right from the start the film recalls Goodfellas, as a snapshot of the 1980s is followed immediately by a flashback to the suburbs of 1950s Boston, accompanied by a drawling voiceover to fill us in on Jung's early life. And as an added bonus, who should appear as George's dad but Goodfellas' very own Ray Liotta, for once playing a good guy. A decent family man desperate to build a happy life for his young son and selfish, dissatisfied wife (a brilliant performance from Six Feet Under's Rachel Griffiths), it is he who establishes the pattern for his son's future. Bankrupt and out of work, he explains that in life there will always be highs and lows, times when you're flush and times when you're broke. 'Money doesn't matter, it only seems like it does,' he insists, but it will take George a lifetime to discover the truth of these wise words.

Instead, determined never to be poor, he heads off to California for a life of sun, sea, sand and smoking pot. The year is 1968, the music is swinging, the girls are all blonde air hostesses and it's all too beautiful. Starting small, George quickly establishes a name for himself as a marijuana dealer, running the kind of jolly, all mates together, Howard Marks style operation where everybody gets a cut and nobody gets hurt.

Franka Potente as the fated Barbara, with Johnny as George Jung

Of course this good clean fun can't last, and soon enough he's busted. He skips bail to care for beloved girlfriend Barbara (Franka Potente), who is dying of cancer, and her death casts the first real shadow over the film.

Returning home to visit his parents, his mother calls the cops and he's packed off to jail - or, as he quickly discovers, 'crime school'. 'I went in with a certificate in marijuana and came out with a doctorate in cocaine,' he explains, and just as we know that cocaine will spell trouble for Goodfellas' Henry Hill (who also starts dealing in prison) we know this can only be the beginning of the end.

George and Diego wallow in money

Soon he's jetting off to Columbia and teaming up with El Padrone, crime boss Pablo Escabar, who even I've heard of so he must be pretty scary. And so begin the crazy halcyon days, as, literally wallowing in hundred dollar bills and surfing in cocaine, Jung acquires houses in Acapulco, a whole showroom of sports cars and a seriously fiery, excess-all-areas wild woman for a wife, Mirtha, played brilliantly by the scarily skinny Penelope Cruz.

As usually happens in these films, things go wrong when we reach the 1980s - and I'm not just talking Johnny's lamentable wig. In fact the highs and lows of Jung's life are exactly mirrored by the transformation of Mr Depp's barnet, from a gleaming Beach Boys bowl to sexy 70s flowing locks to, er, a mullet.

Surrounded by gun-toting criminals

Despite possessing the brass neck, nerves of steel and blatant disregard for the law required to run a multi-million dollar drug smuggling operation, it would appear that Jung is at heart a decent guy who lacks the ruthless killer instinct necessary to survive in a world that has become increasingly cut-throat and perilous. Gone are the days of selling spliffs on the beach: now he is surrounded by gun-toting criminals. Life is cheap, he's warned, as a henchman gets his head blown off. And so, double crossed by his partner, Diego (Jordi Mollà), Jung declines to retaliate, all guns blazing, and instead takes a beating, retires from the business, cleans up his act (just in the nick of time, it would appear) and settles down to what he now sees as the most important business in his life: raising his beloved daughter, Kristina.

The end? As if it were ever going to be that simple, especially as George still has an increasingly psychotic coked-up wife to contend with. Put it this way, the real Jung is still in prison and will remain there until 2015. Go figure.

Suffice it to say that the ending is very, very sad - and not just because we're forced to witness the divine Mr Depp sporting, in addition to the mullet, a prosthetic nose, ravaged face and a huge paunch under his Hawaiian shirt. A miracle of make-up indeed - although no make-up in the world could make him look as addled as the real George Jung, whose photo appears just before the credits.

Johnny Depp as George Jung - sexy flowing 70s locks not a mullet here...

The film was made in close conjunction with the real Jung, and one wonders how much of his story has been sanitised. Was he really as decent at heart as he seems? In an interview on the DVD release of the film, Jung berates himself for possessing a dark side blacker than most, describing himself as a man 'bent on self-destruction' who loved his own free will more than his wife and child.

However, this isn't entirely the impression the film leaves you with. Thanks to Johnny Depp's incredible ability to make us warm towards utterly amoral characters, Jung comes across as an almost sentimental man who cared deeply for his friends and family, loved his father and adored his daughter, who started out as a na´ve innocent with a terrible fear of being poor and allowed himself to be seduced by the almighty dollar into an extreme lifestyle that could only end with his downfall.

Moral lesson or rollercoaster ride through a fascinating and exhilarating life, Blow is a great film featuring fantastic performances from a sterling cast, an evocative soundtrack, costumes that are period perfect and some truly wonderous wigs and stick on sideburns. And besides, it's basically Goodfellas with Johnny Depp? What more could I want?

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