20 Years Ago: ‘Blow’ Joins a Long Line of Drug-Smuggling Classics
Cinematic glamorization of drug smugglers, crime kingpins and low-level crooks had been perfected in the '80s and '90s to the point that there wasn't much left to mine. Still, director Ted Demme thought there was at least one more story to be told in the wake of Scarface, King of New York and Goodfellas.
He'd become intrigued by the saga of George Jung, a suburban Massachusetts native who moved to California in the '60s and became a conduit for importing marijuana and then cocaine into the U.S., the latter at the behest of Colombia’s Medellín Cartel, led by Pablo Escobar.
"The story of George Jung was, well, mind-blowing to me," Demme later admitted. "It's the story of the American Dream gone terribly wrong, about a small-town boy who poured all his talent and dreams into trafficking cocaine in huge quantities. He was a guy who wanted to control his own destiny, who wanted to live by his own rules, like many Americans do, and he found a way to do it and get rich.
Demme had been given the Bruce Porter 1993 book Blow: How a Small Town Boy Made $100 Million with the Medellín Cocaine Cartel and Lost It All by his friend and go-to actor Denis Leary in the mid-'90s. Demme secured the movie rights for it, while David McKenna – fresh off writing American History X – and Nick Cassavetes handled the screenplay adaptation.
The finished film, starred Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz, truncated Porter's verbose title to the much more simplistic Blow before premiering on April 6, 2001.
By then, Depp had long morphed from his 21 Jump Street heartthrob days into a well-respected actor, taking on unconventional lead roles in Ed Wood, the indie flick Dead Man and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas before being cast as George Jung. Cruz played his wife Mirtha. She ultimately turns on him, like seemingly like everyone else in the life of "Boston George." For the majority of the movie, however, Blow is an outrageous ride of decadence, humor and high-stakes risks that pay off huge dividends.
Relocated to the sunny shores of Southern California in the late '60s as the counterculture movement was taking hold, Jung decides to forgo moving nickel-and-dime amounts of pot by working directly with the Mexican cartel to ship by a chartered plane. Derek Foreal, a flamboyant hairstylist and local dealer deftly portrayed by Paul Reubens, helps with a scheme to have Jung's stewardess girlfriend (Franka Potente) transport the product back east to sell to college campuses experiencing an unprecedented weed dry spell.
Watch the Trailer for 'Blow'
Jung gets popped and is sentenced to two years in jail. His cellmate turns out to be Diego Delgado, based on real-life drug lord Carlos Lehder, and the two decide to replicate the success Jung had importing marijuana – but with cocaine. They go on to become the main importers of the drug into the U.S. beginning in the late '70s, providing the financial means necessary for Jung and Mirtha to enjoy a life of leisure. Jung earns the approval of his father (Ray Liotta) and backhanded ire of his mother (played by a so-good-at-being-bad Rachel Griffiths).
Like most stories involving illicit activities and drugs, however, it all goes bad in swift fashion. “In a way, that liberated me to show the fun of it, the partying, the good side of the sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” Demme told the New York Post in 2001, “because I knew it was going to crash.”
Jung is betrayed by Delgado, has his Panamanian bank account of millions seized by the local government and suffers a heart attack when his daughter, Kristina, is born. Mirtha crosses him and he’s sent to prison for three years, returning to society a broken man after serving the sentence, penniless and without a family.
Desperate to reconnect and establish a relationship with Kristina, he plans one final score – the kind which never goes well. Jung then realizes too late that he’s been hoodwinked into a sting operation by the U.S. government and gets condemned to 60 years behind bars. (It’s also worth noting that one of the individuals involved in the deal gone bad is the Kevin Dulli, a composite character played by the consistently reliable Max Perlich; the character was named after one of Demme’s close friends, Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli.)
A self-described fanatic of '70s films and of those based on the era, Demme felt it was important to deliver a worthwhile soundtrack that didn't feel like a retread of what came before. The Blow title card opens with the Keith Richards guitar rip on the Rolling Stones' “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” and rolls on from there with Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Dylan and Faces songs.
“There’s been so many movies that are period pieces, you know, and when people make movies about the ‘80s you hear the same 10 songs recycled and the same sort of outfits recycled and the same colors and stuff,” Demme told Ain’t It Cool in 2001. “I just wanted to change it up a bit. … We tried to find sorta obscure songs that weren’t too obscure no one knew ‘em, but also were maybe Top 20s at one time, as opposed to Top 10s, you know. Then I could feel like I could throw in the Stones at the top and just kinda set the tone. So, we just tried to not be obvious with all those choices but make it obvious enough that people would enjoy it and kinda rock with it.”
A key example: Demme nails Depp's initial entrance, as he's seen clad in all white, aviator sunglasses and flowing, dirty blond locks strutting through a Miami airport to the funk thump of Ram Jam’s “Black Betty” – just as Martin Scorsese had done so artfully with Robert DeNiro’s bar entrance to the strains of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in Mean Streets.
'Boston George' Tells the True Story of 'Blow'
Unfortunately, Blow had the deck stacked against it from the outset. The somewhat similarly themed Traffic saw wide release that January and turned into an awards season juggernaut, cleaning up at the Oscars less than two weeks before Blow opened. Instead of piggybacking on the success of Steven Soderbergh's drug-trade examination, Blow was skewered by some critics who suddenly developed a conscience about movies characterizing major players in the drug trade as anything but scum who needed to be held accountable for the entirety of a movie's run time.
“All he did was operate a toll gate between suppliers and addicts,” Roger Ebert memorably argued. “You wonder, but you never find out, if the reality of those destroyed lives ever occurred to him.”
Depp said that's exactly what the film sought to portray, but on a smaller scale: Blow, in the end, was about the relationship between Jung and his father, and the irreparable damage his career choice had on Jung's bond with his child.
“It just tells the story of the guy’s life, of George Jung’s life, and the effects of the choices he made – right or wrong – and the effects of drug use and what happened to him in his life,” Depp later told Jonathan Ross. “It was less of a drug movie for me and more about what happened to this little kid and where he went. I don’t think George’s massive coronary at the birth of his daughter is glamorizing drug use – by any means. I don’t think George ending up in prison, quite possibly for the rest of his days, is glamorizing drug use. I think it’s just telling the story.”
Blow opened at a disappointing No. 3 at the box office, but made its budget back in foreign markets. The film then found a second life on home video and heavily edited television broadcasts, and is now considered one of Ted Demme's – and Depp's – finest works.
Unfortunately, Blow became the director’s final project, as he died unexpectedly in January 2002 after collapsing during a celebrity basketball game. Demme was just 37 years old.
The real-life George Jung, who was estimated to have been responsible for bringing in 85% of the cocaine into the country from the late '70s through the early '80s, was released from prison in late 2014. He was sent back to jail and moved into a halfway house after violating his parole in 2016, but became a free man again the following year.
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