- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2001

"Traffic" struck a topical nerve, but its interwoven subplots revealed a disingenuous blind spot in its failure to show how the drug trade can seduce and compromise people in the movie business.
The films release coincided with news stories about Robert Downey Jr.s ongoing struggle to sustain a career while chronically in thrall to cocaine.
It didnt seem unfair to ask why Tijuana, San Diego and Cincinnati loomed so large as "Traffic" locales when Hollywood itself remained a conspicuous magnet for drug problems.
Perhaps the producers realized that a rival production intended to catch up with some of the lore that implicated the movie colony in the fashionable addiction.
Titled "BLOW," a double-edged allusion to cocaine and the desolate potential in narcotic dependence, that movie opens today.
Not without grievous shortcomings of its own, "BLOW" seems calculated to exhaust the patience of most spectators while recalling a singularly pernicious example of a misspent contemporary life, but it also uncovers a sordidly intriguing and dynamic case history that might have some useful cautionary benefits.
The ultimate costs of vice do look pretty grim, especially when we stare at the real-life protagonist in a fade-out image.
Director Ted Demme was alerted to the source material, a memoir published in the late 1980s, by actor and co-producer Denis Leary.
During several years, they developed the rags-to-riches-to-jailbird chronicle of George Jung (pronounced "Young") with screenwriters David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes.
Transplanted from Cape Cod to Southern California in the late 1960s, Jung impersonated over three decades of overstimulated hard living by Johnny Depp (inhibited by some of the least flattering wigs and glad rags in film history) progresses from a cosy little marijuana dealership in Manhattan Beach to dominance of the burgeoning U.S. cocaine business in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
This golden age of blow was very much evident in Hollywood, smugly so at its zenith. The movie flat-out credits Jung with being the principal supplier of Americas celebrities during the period, when he had exclusive access to high-quality powder from Pablo Escobars cartel in Medellin, Colombia.
Among other historical sidelights, the movie depicts how a Colombian given the name Diego Delgado in the movie (Jordi Molla) emerges as Jungs link to Escobar when he and Jung become acquainted as cellmates in the early 1970s.
The Jung odyssey is framed, somewhat dubiously, as a chronicle of inherited character flaws.
George is introduced as a youngster, devoted to his hard-working dad, Fred (Ray Liotta), a contractor forced into bankruptcy by hazily untrustworthy associates. Fred is subject to recurrent onslaughts from a shrewish wife, Ermine (Rachel Griffiths), such a grotesque that her impact may be more facetious than traumatic.
Fred has a way of reassuring George that everything will be OK, although it never is. George echoes Freds empty reassurances a generation later to a daughter named Kristina, caught in the crossfire of his own domestic wrangles with Mirtha, a terrifying drug-trophy wife from Colombia played by Penelope Cruz.
The weakest aspects of the presentation are the suggestions that George, like the decent but ferociously henpecked Fred, is basically a swell guy at the mercy of hysterics and mercenaries.
The movie seems more persuasive when the special pleading is submerged or irrelevant, allowing us to contemplate the gaudy spectacle of Georges meteoric career as a capitalist free-lancer who hits the jackpot by being timely and resourceful enough to cater to an illicit market primed to expand beyond anyones wildest dreams of avarice and sensation.
The best social commentary tends to be a deadpan illustration of vulgarity and self-indulgence: the pot-smoking euphoria of hippie-dippie Manhattan Beach; a lingerie Christmas party among dealers and their babes in Acapulco; the menacing razzle-dazzle of a cartel gala in Cartegena, when George first encounters Mirtha.
Its rather like those episodes of "The Sopranos" in which you deduce that endless days at the strip club Bada Bing approach optimum bliss to Tony and his thugs.
The presence of Ray Liotta, all over the screen in supporting roles this year, has a curious resonance.
Youre reminded that the flashback narration of "BLOW," entrusted to Johnny Depp, derives from Mr. Liottas similar confidences as the protagonist of Martin Scorseses "GoodFellas," which seemed to be the last word on the American gangster family until "The Sopranos" came along.
The idea of Ray Liotta as Johnny Depps father may come as an unwelcome shock to moviegoers who dont care to seem middle-aged just yet.
Hes been prominent for only a decade and remains distinctively baby-faced. He appears to be getting a premature shove toward retirement.
Next logical "comeback" assignment: the scariest of wiseguys on "The Sopranos."

Three stars out of four


RATING: R (Frequent profanity and systematic depictions of drug use and drug trafficking; occasional graphic violence and sexual candor, including nudity and simulated intercourse)

CREDITS: Directed by Ted Demme. Screenplay by David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes, based on the book by Bruce Porter.

RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes

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