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Go for broke. That’s what small-town New England hick George Jung did when he began smuggling Colombian cocaine into the U.S. and raked in more than $100 million during the 1980s as the gringo Pablo Escobar. And that’s what Johnny Depp, who plays George, and Ted Demme, who directs this brazen biopic, do with Blow. They’ve put their asses on the line for the true story of an indisputable scumbag. And they’ve wrapped that story in a fever dream of a film that tries like hell to encapsulate four decades of drug-fueled hedonism in terms that are both intimate and epic. Of course, Depp and Demme wouldn’t have to do jail time if they fucked up (George is in the slammer until 2014). Luckily, they don’t fuck up. If GoodFellas and Traffic are the class bookends of the last decade in drug cinema, Blow scorches the screen with a badass bravado all its own. Smart, sexy, funny and dangerous, this high-wire act is a movie and a half.

For starters, it showcases talents working at the top of their games. After a slow period — what else would you call The Astronaut’s Wife and The Ninth Gate? — Depp steps up to a once-in-a-lifetime role and bats it out of the park. And if you don’t get the fuss about Spain’s voluptuous Penelope Cruz based on her blah U.S. films (All the Pretty Horses, The Hi-Lo Country), her take on George’s wife, Mirtha, will turn you around. It’s a stormy, smoldering tour de force. Just wait till you hear a coked-up, pregnant Mirtha tell a crowd, “Let’s fucking party, motherfuckers.”

Such potent scenes, spectacularly shot by cinematographer Ellen Kuras, represent a quantum leap for Demme, a director whose work has previously been brilliant only in flashes (The Ref, Beautiful Girls). With Blow, Demme scores a career high. He spares us the usual moral rectitude. The law has already weighed in on George, so the screenplay — adroitly carved by Nick Cassavetes and David McKenna out of Bruce Porter’s 1993 book — doesn’t judge. George isn’t a demon like Al Pacino in Scarface or a lost boy like Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights, though Blow nods appreciatively to both films. George blunders into smuggling while looking to get stoned and laid on a regular basis. If that makes him a jerk, he’s the jerk as Everyman.

Depp is dynamite, showing how George is susceptible to temptation but also to feelings and pain. It’s not every actor who could survive the series of wigs and ruinous fashions that mark George as Sixties hippie, Seventies drug lord and Eighties cocaine casualty. All George wanted when he left the Massachusetts home of his middle-class parents, Fred (Ray Liotta) and Ermine (Rachel Griffiths), was to revel in the surf, sex and pot of California. But having a stewardess girlfriend, Barbara (Franka Potente), made it easy to fly in grass from Mexico. And, hey, if that could earn George $100,000 a year, what would smuggling coke bring in? Millions, as George learns from Diego Delgado (Jordi Molla), who introduces him to the Colombian cartels run by Escobar (Cliff Curtis). The scene in which George watches as Escobar casually murders a police informant is bone-chilling, but not enough to deter George. With the help of his California connection, hairdresser Derek Foreal — Paul Reubens, out of Pee-wee’s playhouse with a vengeance, makes the role a lethal blend of mischief and malice — George is soon up the nose of Hollywood’s elite and responsible for eighty-five percent of the cocaine traffic in America.

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Here, Demme is showing off, mixing film stocks and narrative techniques, drunk on the possibilities of what the medium can do. Blow will knock your eyes out. The bigger surprise is how powerfully it batters your heart. The script sometimes overstresses the parental parallels: Mirtha keeps George away from his daughter, just as George’s mother — humiliated by his crimes — prevents George from seeing his dying father (Liotta’s performance resonates with grace notes). But Depp, never more subtly moving than when George tapes a farewell message to his dad, lays bare the misconnections that turned George’s good life into a sorrowful odyssey. Blow, ambitious, messy and bursting with feelings for which it can’t always find coherent expression, is touched by greatness. It doesn’t just stick in the memory, it leaves scars.

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