October 2, 2007

My old movie reviews: Johnny Depp in 'Blow"

I discovered a bunch of movie reviews on my hard disk that I wrote for UPI in 2001 that don't appear anywhere on the Internet. I can't say that there unavailability has been any great loss for the intellectual life of humanity, but, in the interest of completeness, I guess I'll try posting some of them from time to time here.

Blow

April 2, 2001

Johnny Depp doesn't look like a typical Hollywood leading man. He has instead the gaunt, high-cheekboned face of a classic rock star, such as Steven Tyler of Aerosmith or Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.

In fact, Depp moved to Hollywood originally to try for a recording contract, but a terrific gift for acting launched him on a different career. For the next decade and a half, though, he lived the rock star lifestyle. The gossip columns were full of his arrests and romantic bust-ups.

Since his French pop star girlfriend presented him with a daughter two years ago, however, Depp has repeatedly proclaimed that his baby has finally given him a reason to live. (Memo to Mr. Depp: If you love your daughter as much as you say you do, you might consider marrying her mom.)

It's easy to guess why Depp chose to play George Jung in "Blow," the quasi-true story of a small town Massachusetts kid who pioneered the aerial smuggling of marijuana in the late Sixties and of cocaine in the late Seventies. As a middleman for the Medellin Cartel, Jung made, literally, a boatload of money. One of "Blow's" funnier scenes shows him and his Colombian partner trying to find an empty spot in their yacht where can they cram yet another brown paper bag full of cash.

Not surprisingly, Jung went on to blow not only his money, his health, and his freedom (he's locked away until 2015), but also the love of his daughter. Making this movie no doubt served as a useful reminder to Depp of the potential price of going back to his old ways.

"Blow" is a well-made, entertaining comedy-drama, although not as memorable as two earlier cocaine wholesaler epics, "Goodfellas" and "Scarface." At the preview, the mostly Baby Boomer audience, apparently nostalgic for their dope-smoking younger days, enjoyed the early scenes' Cheech & Chong-style humor about laughable potheads. A few sniffled over the sentimental and sad ending.

Artistically, however, "Blow" was less than an inspired choice for Depp, normally our most venturesome big star. Critics are praising Depp for portraying Jung not as a scumbag, but as a likeable guy. Of course, Jung actually was a scumbag who made about $100 million by helping to ruin countless lives.

And making characters seem appealing and easy to identify with is what movie stars do for a living. It's no stretch at all for Depp to lend some of his Seventies rock star-style glamour to a Seventies drug dealer. As the real Jung fondly recalled in an interview with PBS, "Basically, I was no different than a rock star or a movie star. I was a coke star."

In contrast, in 1994's "Ed Wood," Depp played the most incompetent movie director ever, somehow making lovable and fascinating an El Dorko of titanic proportions. Now, that was acting.

Further, the script rejiggered Jung's life story to make him seem more sympathetic. We see an on-the-wagon Jung nobly saving his Colombian guests and his coke fiend wife (played by Spanish spitfire Penelope Cruz) by telling cops that the pound of cocaine they found in his house was for his "personal use only." We don't hear about how the real Jung ratted on his ex-partner to save himself from the slammer.

"Blow" also portrays Jung as a nonviolent type, who flashes a gun but once, and that turns out to be unloaded. Yeah, right. Outlaws who can't call on the police to protect their boatloads of cash must carry guns. Otherwise, they get dead fast.

Now that "Traffic" is inspiring calls for decriminalizing drugs, Americans need to understand that for the government to merely take a hands-off approach toward drug dealing would do little to cut down on the drug trade's pervasive violence. To remove the need for the private armies, the police would have to take over their job of protecting cocaine dealers. Somehow, I doubt we are ready to do that.

As the recent dot.com bubble showed, Americans are infatuated with starting their own businesses. Yet, for some reason, Hollywood doesn't cater to that interest by making movies about entrepreneurs, unless they are gangsters like Jung.

Surprisingly, the movie doesn't deliver the pleasure of watching a capable businessman do a hard job well. Instead, "Blow" portrays the early days of the international drug business as a bonanza where even someone as amateurish as Jung could prosper.

When trying to bring in 110 pounds of Colombian cocaine in false-bottomed suitcases, Jung shows up at the U.S. Customs desk with shoulder-length hair, looking like he shaved in the dark, and decked out in a leisure suit that would have been a little too obvious even for a drug dealer on "Starsky & Hutch."

Later, Jung deposits all his loot in a Panamanian bank owned by dictator Manuel Noriega, only to find out when he tries to withdraw it, that Senor Noriega was not the trustworthiest of bankers.

The movie claims that Jung's big competitive advantage was that he knew the identity of the top cocaine retailer in America, who is played by Paul Reubens. It's a little hard to be impressed with an industry where the Mr. Big is the former Pee-Wee Herman.

In this, "Blow" resembles "Boogie Nights," which depicted people in the porn business as so cerebrally-challenged that Burt Reynolds could credibly portray its visionary genius.

Yet, the obtuseness of most of the characters makes "Blow" more realistic than the typical Hollywood movie about supposed criminal masterminds. Generally, people become crooks only if they have a hard time anticipating the dire consequences of their career choice. For example, an IQ measured at a slightly above average 110 made John Gotti, the "Teflon Don," a mental giant among mobsters.

At the end, Jung reflects, "My ambition far exceeded my talent." "Blow" has the opposite problem. It unleashes a lot of talent upon an unworthy subject.

"Blow" is rated "R" for glamorizing drugs and for bad language. It's rather mild in the sex and violence departments.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

7 comments:

Alex said...

" I can't say that there unavailability has been any great loss for the intellectual life of humanity, but, in the interest of completeness, I guess I'll try posting some of them from time to time here."

Enough of that kind of talk; keep 'em coming!

J said...

'Now that "Traffic" is inspiring calls for decriminalizing drugs, Americans need to understand that for the government to merely take a hands-off approach toward drug dealing would do little to cut down on the drug trade's pervasive violence. To remove the need for the private armies, the police would have to take over their job of protecting cocaine dealers. Somehow, I doubt we are ready to do that.'

Not true. Decriminalizing drugs would virtually eliminate the drug trade's pervasive violence, as it did when prohibition ended. Now policemen protect Budweiser and Jack Daniels distilleries, as they should. And rum-running gangsters don't exist.

TGGP said...

Now that "Traffic" is inspiring calls for decriminalizing drugs, Americans need to understand that for the government to merely take a hands-off approach toward drug dealing would do little to cut down on the drug trade's pervasive violence. To remove the need for the private armies, the police would have to take over their job of protecting cocaine dealers. Somehow, I doubt we are ready to do that.
When the mob ran bootlegging during Prohibition there was violence galore. After alcohol was legalized the liquor business became as peaceful an industry as any other. Once Miller Brewing Company, Phillip Morris and Pfizer take over the dope industry we can expect them to behave similarly.

Anonymous said...

J and TGGP, you two speak as though the only problem with drugs is the violence associated with the trade.

Are these drug producers going to be given immunity from lawsuits by chronically strung-out addicts ala tobacco companies? And when it's legalized and congress or state legislatures tax the hell out of it, are these poor users, who likely can't keep a job to afford their habit, going to just quit because it's too expensive? There will still be an illegal market for drugs, just as cigarette smuggling rings exist nowadays for a legal product.

Cocaine, heroin, and meth addicts are a sad bunch of people who effectively cannot function in society. Much worse than virtually any drunk you'll ever know.

I'm not suggesting the current "War on Drugs" is the best way to go. But the "legalize it" crowd is thinking about this in a very shallow way.

Anonymous said...

I remember Penelope Cruz in the Spanish film Belle Epoque. It must've come out in the early 90's. I hate to say this but we've stolen two great actors, Cruz & Antonio Banderas, from Spain where they acted in movies far superior to almost anything we produce in this country.

tggp said...

I am not saying there would be no smuggling as with cigarretes or health problems, as with both cigarretes and alcohol. I am saying it would be far preferable if we had only the problems of cigarrettes and alcohol when it came to drugs, rather than a huge underground industry rife with violence and filling our prisons which contributes to the problem of an alienated and stagnant underclass in our inner cities.

Rebekah said...

"And when it's legalized and congress or state legislatures tax the hell out of it, are these poor users, who likely can't keep a job to afford their habit, going to just quit because it's too expensive? There will still be an illegal market for drugs, just as cigarette smuggling rings exist nowadays for a legal product.

Cocaine, heroin, and meth addicts are a sad bunch of people who effectively cannot function in society. Much worse than virtually any drunk you'll ever know."


^ Just commenting on this being said. First of all, I've seen many drunks much worse than I've seen a lot of drug addicts. Alcohol is a dangerous drug that kills many people and ruins just as many, if not more, families than drug abuse does. Also, the issue of costs will be the same as alcohol when it was legalized; the government has taxed it but it's not that hard for the poor to get their hands on a $6 bottle of 5 'o clock vodka. Legalization will be similar to this, but without people sitting in prison for marijuana possession and violent gangs.