If you own a Palm Pilot, you’re probably already playing Dope Wars, the most popular game currently available for the Palm. For those whose lives aren’t ruled by pocket circuitry (and may therefore be unaware), Dope Wars is essentially an accounting game: starting with $2000, players must make money by buying and selling a variety of illegal drugs, avoiding various hazards such as cops and muggers while trafficking among different neighborhoods within the city.
Blow, starring Johnny Depp, plays out like a true-life version of Dope Wars. Depp plays George Jung, the American cocaine smuggler who established the first vital link between Pablo Escobar’s Colombian cartel and the United States in the 1970’s. Jung was the original Candyman; according to him, if you snorted coke in the late ’70s or early ’80s, there’s an 85% chance it came from him.
Too many cinematic drug sagas have been foisted on the world already, but Blow does offer a fairly unique perspective. Jung’s remarkable story reads like anti-drug propaganda: initial dabblings in pot lead directly to the irresistible lure of cocaine. With a head for business and great people skills, Jung sees the lucrative opportunities in drug trafficking as a way to avoid the financial burdens his parents endured. He’s great at smuggling; his only handicap is the women in his life: his mother (Rachel Griffiths), a failed social-climber, seems jealous of his success, and his wife (Penelope Cruz) likes only cocaine more than money. Lamentably, Jung doesn’t learn the lesson his father (Ray Liotta) tried to teach – money doesn’t matter – until too late, costing him dearly.
Director Ted Demme uses various camera techniques to give each decade a distinctive (and sometimes authentic) look. The ever-reliable Depp advances through three decades in a fierce wardrobe and an assortment of bad wigs, false mustaches and bushy sideburns that detract only slightly from his nuanced performance. With their progressively worsening old-age makeup, Liotta and Griffiths don’t fare nearly as well. And a nearly unrecognizable Paul Reubens (formerly Pee-wee) beguiles as a flaming hairdresser/drug dealer with a lisp that lingers in the air minutes after he finishes speaking.
Slow and cliched at times, the film does manage to sustain empathy for Jung as he unwittingly sacrifices everything important to him during the course of his career. The lessons gleaned here are far from original, but the story’s fact-based origins make them seem somehow significant. As a photo of the real Jung at the end reminds us: unlike Dope Wars, this was no game.