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In the Eye of the Storm 

*Blow (R)
New Line Cinema

Although Blow carries a disclaimer noting that the "characters and incidents portrayed are fictitious," there's no getting around the fact that its real-life main character, George Jung, is currently sitting behind real iron bars for drug trafficking -- and will be until 2014.

Based on Bruce Porter's book of the same name, director Ted Demme surgically reveals an intimate vision of the Colombian cocaine cartels that overtook America in the '70s and '80s using the money-hungry efforts of a small-town kid.

Part social portrait and part biopic, the movie plays like an essential predecessor to Steven Soderbergh's Traffic. Johnny Depp gives a spellbindingly naturalistic performance as Jung, putting a sympathetic face on an intensely individualistic man whose propensities for crime brought him immense riches but eventually cost him everything he cared about.

It's difficult to watch Blow without being practically hypnotized by Johnny Depp's deceptively low-key performance. While aging more than 30 years over the course of the story, Depp subtly matches his body language and voice to fit the various social eras that the film crosses. Depp's extensive character development is on a par with Al Pacino's exceptional work on Brian De Palma's cocaine-driven Scarface.

The story line goes something like this. Jung swears to himself never to work as hard as his father Fred (Ray Liotta) nor worry about money like his mother Ermine (Rachel Griffiths), so he moves to California in the summer of '68 looking for a way out of poverty. After falling immediately into selling pot on Venice Beach, George sees an opportunity to exploit pot sales across state lines.

As George begins smuggling suitcases of pot via a helpful stewardess, it's not long before he and his cohorts are stealing a plane to pick up huge quantities of pot in South America and living as a close-knit wealthy family. Ironically it's George's first arrest, shortly thereafter, that leads him into a much more dangerous world of cocaine trafficking through his gregarious prison cellmate Diego Delgado (Jordi Molla). Delgado personally knows the renowned kingpin Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis) and pushes George to break his parole by flying to Columbia upon their release to meet him.

The capitalist impulse to live out an American dream -- beyond authority and financial constraints -- is deeply seeded throughout this film. Director Demme carefully frames Jung's wildly shifting journey as it coincides with the changing American consciousness -- from the heydays of the liberated '60s to the decadent '70s and on into the 'Me' decade of the '80s.

Woven into this fairly long movie (it's close to 2.5 hours) are seductively crisp performances by supporting players like Paul Reubens, as George's flamboyant California connection, and a virtuoso cameo by Bobcat Goldthwait who tests the purity of a quantity of cocaine like no other actor ever could. Notwithstanding is Penelope Cruz's fairly flat effort as George's overindulged trophy wife. The stellar efforts of the more experienced actors accentuate Cruz's less-than-money performance.

As the final credits roll, there is an image of what, at first, looks like an old woman. But as the image becomes clearer, you realize that it's a recent photo of George Jung, a man physically and emotionally crippled by mistakes he made years ago -- mistakes that a lot of other people would never have succeeded so well at, but would most certainly have made just as he did.

At least there's a poignant movie about his experience.

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