Make Up Your Mind is a series I’m starting, where I review movies whose tomato meters are between 40% and 60%, showing they have no critical consensus. I warn you that this will definitely have spoilers. But let’s jump right in!
Blow is a 2001 movie, starring Johnny Depp and Ray Liotta, based on the life of an influential and famous member of the 70’s and 80’s drug trade: George Jung. Like many other drug, crime, and mob movies following a singular person, it paints the life of George; from his early childhood, to what was the conclusion of his story as of 2001. And in a way to make it as dramatic as possible. But unlike those other films in this genre, Blow attempts to tear out your heart, framing a majority of the film as a sympathetic look at his life’s downfalls – especially as it draws towards its end. Sadly, this distinguishing factor, and a few poor performances, ruin the intense, high-energy that many of these movies offer, and the outstanding lead performance of Johnny Depp.
The movie starts off with a look into George’s early childhood, in the 50’s, living in a house with an unstable marriage, in a working-class family who eventually declares bankruptcy. When he begins to understand the economic situation his parents and himself are going through, he vows that he is never going to grow up to be poor. This introduction is more than fine – establishing his motives as a person, foreshadowing future relationship issues, and providing a strong personal connection to his father. I think its depth is unnecessary in a story about a drug smuggler and his antics (the intro to Scarface (1983) jumps right into his late introduction to the U.S.), but it is the beginning of what will be a strong emotional shift in the film.
Once we head into the adult life of our protagonist, we’re shown his time as a California bum, and how that turned into his first encounter with drug trade. In need of funds, his best friend, Tuna, brings home a bag of marijuana with the intention of selling it. This sparks the idea of selling a much larger amount, which leads them to new connections, and an eventual successful business. So successful that it ends in the arrest of our main character, George. This section of the film is fun, innocent, and centered around a gang of friends; an interesting lead-up to a more serious, anxiety-filled ride, and one that I’m not super fond of.
During the process of his trial, he finds out his girlfriend has cancer, and then it immediately cuts to her funeral. This, obviously, isn’t well-handled, and feels like a thrown-in moment to add onto this growing narrative of him as a sympathetic character. It also sparks the next section of the film. With his girlfriend – one of the more important members of his social web – dead, the band of friends dismembers, and along with it, the business. But through his time in jail, he rooms with Diego (loosely based on Carlos Lehder), who introduces him to the Columbian cocaine trade. Originally, I was upset at this random injection to continue the story that was otherwise at an impasse, but doing the research, the two did meet in prison, and started their empire as soon as they got released. I don’t know if they could’ve changed the scenes beforehand to make it feel more natural, but I can’t fault them for the plot point itself.
The majority of the rest of the story plays out very similar to movies like Scarface. The operations start small (relative to where they go, they’re still making millions of dollars), but then they get roped into Pablo Escobar. Diego gets into some law trouble, George does too, he makes his enemies, steals a partner’s fiance and marries her, gets backstabbed by Diego, and eventually has enough. This is definitely the greatest part of the movie, as a whole. It has been done by many films before it, but some of the dramatic scenes with him and Pablo, him and Diego, or even when he overdoses, all add to an intense thrill ride that’s well put together.
Finally, once we’ve hit our climax, we have to wind down a little bit, as my elementary school English teacher would insist. And this is when it gets the most stale. The last, probably 30 minutes of the film are spent following George’s relationship with his wife, and his daughter. Drama ensues between him and his wife, he gets arrested for something that was more or less her fault, she leaves him while he’s in prison, and his daughter won’t forgive him so he goes out to get her back. This all happens within the course of, I don’t know, 10 minutes maximum, so they can set up the emotional masterpiece that is the final sequence.
After forcing himself back into his daughter’s life by walking her to and from school everyday, he finally speaks with his ex-wife, who essentially says that he can see her if he starts to pay child support (not an unfair offer). Apparently he starts paying it, because then we’re met with a scene in his kitchen, with his daughter Kristina, where he promises her that he’ll take her to California (her favorite place) this next week. But through this process, he finds a new group of people to start a drug gang around, and it turns out they had set him up for law enforcement to arrest him the whole time. Then, this turns into an art film.
Before the door busts down, everyone around George leaves the stage, as a spotlight is put directly on him. During this is a dramatic narration by Johnny Depp himself, leading into him recording a tape for his dad, about his fondest memories. Then, once we see him, old, in prison, he walks into the courtyard, seeing his daughter. All grown up, probably 30 now, she tells him she isn’t mad at him, they embrace, and it switches back and forth between the 30-year-old daughter and the 8-year-old one. But in the end, we find out it was just his imagination, with a prison worker telling him to get back inside as he babbles about putting his daughter on the visitors’ list. As I’ve hinted at before, this ending, and the idea as a whole, doesn’t work for several reasons.
In each and every part of Blow, it provides us with a different mood. At first, we learn of his childhood, and are supposed to feel bad for his past. Then, we’re given a fun glimpse into late 1960’s California, with him smoking weed and having sex on the beach a majority of the time. Next comes a girlfriend dying out of the blue. When we get to the real part of the movie, it begins to get anxiety-inducing, intense, and dramatic. But then we’re left with a once-again sympathetic tone, only this time I guess it’s more depressing because it’s not real? The overall mood of the last few minutes confuses me in its intent, but nonetheless it isn’t fitting. Sure, films can and should change moods from time to time, to enhance certain aspects, plot points, themes, etc., but this time it just seems random (like the California section) or shoe-horned in (like his girlfriend passing from cancer). This leaves it fragmented, and ultimately made me unable to buy him as a super sympathetic character, after he’d just been drowning in money and snorting more coke than a Wall Street worker in 1983. In most movies like this, we do see the tragic fall of our protagonist, but it isn’t often framed to make us feel incredibly sorry, because that’s hard to achieve.
When we push the overall story aside and look at individual aspects, they’re once again inconsistent. I have no issue with Johnny Depp’s performance, to the point that I think it carries most of the movie. Ray Liotta as well, does a fantastic job. But everyone else is either on-and-off, or not good at all. Diego, as I said, finds himself in some decent scenes, including his meeting with George once George finds out he’s been cheated by him. The times when they’re having genuine conversation, it’s good. But I wasn’t really invested into his character when he was just George’s roommate. There wasn’t a lot of personality there at all. On the worst side of the spectrum, his wife, Mirtha, is played by Penelope Cruz, who was then nominated for the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actress later that year, for this performance. I don’t know if it was quite that bad, but it certainly deserves no praise.
Lastly, the atmospheric elements of the movie are often outstanding, but have their laughable moments. The opening glance into the lives of cocaine workers was pretty immersive. The beach scenes, while not necessarily fitting for the project, were enjoyable and calming. The cocaine-filled parties were energetic and exciting. But certain directing decisions, like the back and forth cuts between George and Diego in the jail cell conversation, break through this environment and make the scene poor instead.
Blow as a cohesive project, is not good. It has its moments, with Johnny Depp providing a solid lead throughout the two hours of the movie. With certain dramatic sequences I’ve already discussed. But the awful breaks in between pace-changes, the weird narrative, the sporadic writing of things such as his girlfriend’s death, and the horrid performances by supporting actors and actresses all contribute to making it not nearly as good as any other movie I’ve seen like it. Is it the worst movie I’ve ever seen, or anywhere close? No. I’d probably give it around a 4 or a 5 out of 10. But for the sake of this series, I’m just going to be providing a verdict relating to good or bad.