Ted Demme's Blow (2001) is a film about George Jung (Johnny Depp), a true-to-life, real flesh-and-blood person who was a major figure in the American drug smuggling cocaine ring in the 1980s. Demme tells his tale in traditional American fashion, one which our culture very much loves--the rise and fall of the American Dream. Film depictions of criminals in this fashion are particularly popular and attractive such as Brian de Palma's Scarface (1983) and Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990); and Blow shows a strong influence from both. Blow, however, takes a traditional formula and goes in an nontraditional direction. Whether Demme made a conscious choice to attempt to render a faithful history of George Jung's life or to take a traditional and tried-and-true American film formula, use it as a loose framework, play with it, and ultimately subvert it (or both) is unknown to me. However the result is that Demme's last film is perhaps one of the last decade's most underrated and under-appreciated films.
George Jung is an interesting character who seemingly doesn't fit the archetype of the man in pursuit of the American Dream: ambition and perseverance through hard work are not two of his shining attributes. As a criminal, Jung doesn't even fit the traditional mold either--he's not violent and ruthless, charming or charismatic, or particularly sharp, methodical, or scheming. Although his father, portrayed by Ray Liotta, tells him that "he would be great at anything," the truth is really what Jung tells Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis) during his first meeting: "You need a man with balls." Jung dives into life headlong and living life very much in the present (later revealed very much to his detriment) with consequences being damned. Eventually Jung's impulsive living resulted in his capture and imprisonment but it had a much deeper spiritual effect upon Jung. This latter effect is where Demme shines with Blow, and Depp deserves some serious praise for his portrayal of Jung.
One of Depp's best sequences, and also one of the best within Blow, is when Jung attempts to simply arrive into America via plane from Colombia with several kilos of cocaine in two suitcases. His goal is to make it through customs with his contraband successfully. If his contraband is discovered by authorities, then he's going to jail for a potentially long time. Jung has no further plan to make his goal successful: he's just going to take the chance. After Depp's Jung takes his two suitcases from the airport carousel, in voice-over narration Jung talks about thinking happy thoughts, like a party or having sex, and projecting his mind into those thoughts (in a lot of ways like slipping slightly out of reality temporarily). Demme focuses on Depp's face as he walks to the customs' station in a well-crafted move: Depp is singularly able to render this notion just with the changing look on his face in a very subtle fashion. Jung almost gets caught twice by the customs' officer but coolly gets through.
It is only apparent by the final act within Blow for the viewer to see with whom Jung had the most important relationships in his life and where the real dramatic conflict resides. During the first act during Jung's youth with his "rise" as focus, his relationships are with his close friends Tuna (Ethan Suplee) and Dulli (Max Perlich), his friend and business contact, Derek (Paul Reubens as an eccentric character in a standout performance), and a brief, intense and loving relationship with Barbara (Franka Potente). All of Jung's relationships with these characters are given in glimpses with some even disappearing after the first act, but this is Jung's life or either a reflection of how he lives it: very much in the present. His relationship with his parents, portrayed by Ray Liotta and Rachel Griffiths, are also shown with glimpses (early scenes with younger depictions of Liotta and Griffiths strain credulity as each looks like a sibling of Depp instead of a parent. However, as the two characters get older their characters become more credible, through make-up and very good performances by both, especially Liotta). Any real depth with Jung's relationship with his later wife, Mirtha (Penelope Cruz) is absent. (Their scenes feel like carbon copies of Tony and Elvira in Scarface or Henry and Karen in Goodfellas. Even some of Demme's set-ups and compositions mimic or emphasize this comparison.) Jung's most important relationship in his life comes much, much later in Blow and its depiction is where Demme sets his film apart from its traditional predecessors and shines. This relationship has a real intimacy in its depiction, despite the absence of any intimacy in its substance. The desire for a loving intimacy becomes Jung's strongest and what he always wanted.At the completion of Blow, the viewer can only then reflect upon its action and see the result of Demme's craft with his narrative. Depp's portrayal seemingly begins as the man in pursuit of the American Dream yet what his character always wanted was something much older and much more human. Depp's scenes with his father, shown in glimpses throughout Blow, after all are seen together, paint the history of this character far better than any true historical account. With little dialogue and two stellar performances by Depp and Liotta, Demme slowly builds his real story with real emotion. At the film's conclusion, Blow can truly be appreciated for how often brilliant it is. Like Goodfellas or Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights (1997), for example, Blow goes for real accuracy in its depiction of its historical time with authentic-looking costumes, cars, and especially pop music of the period. As the film starts to unfold, Blow feels as if it is going to continue in that tradition in another rendition of which perhaps audiences and critics were becoming tired. Depp and Demme set this film apart and make Blow truly memorable. This was Ted Demme's last film, and what he would have made possibly could have put him into the elite. As Blow stands, however, it is very much worth seeing as it shows an immense amount of creative talent, a loving eye to both overt and subtle detail, and above all, real human emotion.