The drugs film can be relied upon to include some, if not all, of the following elements. The anti-hero will be an initially sympathetic man who is gradually drawn into circumstances beyond his control (Goodfellas, Boogie Nights); alternatively, he will be a small-time villain who graduates into cocaine dealing (Scarface). Meanwhile, the police, who will often be as sinister and corrupt as any drugs baron (Traffic), will attempt to coerce our anti-hero to go along with their nefarious plans (Scarface). It is unsurprising that all these elements are present in Blow; it is more surprising that a rather good film results from them.
The basic plot is George Jung's (Depp) life from a child living in the 1950s with his kind but weak father (Liotta) and his shrewish mother (Griffiths), through his career as a beach-dwelling dope dealer with first girlfriend (Potente), to his move into cocaine and his friendship with infamous crimelord Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis). Along the way, most of the cliches are visited, sometimes limply, sometimes hilariously and movingly, until the final, schmaltzy ending.
Blow is, first and foremost, a good film in a very solid and traditional sense. Demme, like his more famous cousin Jonathan, is intelligent enough not to let his stylistic flourishes (slow motion, freeze frames, split screens) overload the story, which is undeniably compelling, and superbly acted by a genuinely eclectic cast. Depp is very restrained and low-key in the role of Jung, which means that it's often quite hard to tell that he's acting; however, a second viewing reveals that his performance is actually extremely subtle, and works superbly. Liotta, cast in an obvious homage to his performance as Henry Hill in Goodfellas, is very good indeed, finally showing that he can play a sensitively drawn character, rather than a dead-eyed villain. The rest of the cast are all superb, with Paul Reubens especially uproarious as gay hairdresser/drugs czar Derek Foreal. In fact, the only weak link is a dreadful Penelope Cruz, who once again proves that she shouldn't really bother with English language films, after her wooden performances in this, Captain Corelli's Mandolin and All the Pretty Horses.
However, there are flaws here, even though the flaws are those of character and motivation, rather than bad acting or direction. Inevitably, a film that lasts for 4 decades is going to have an episodic structure, but this unfortunately means that narrative cohesion is sometimes lost, with the passing of time being conveyed by little more than make-up and wigs; Demme's use of different film stocks works superbly for a while, but it's hard to tell the difference between the 1970s and 1990s in the film's context. Another problem is that Jung is portrayed in too sympathetic a light, almost certainly because of his heavy involvement in the film's production; it's hard to imagine a man who was responsible for more or less introducing America to cocaine being such a loving father and loyal friend, and this contradiction is one that the film never quite explores satisfactorily.
Still, the film is a very well made, very enjoyable piece of cinema. Its surprisingly high take at the box office can be explained by the high profile casting of Depp and Cruz, as well as the recent success of Traffic; however, the word of mouth that led to its continued success can only be attributed to its skill as a film. It's unlikely to become your favourite film, but it's certainly one that you'd want to watch more than once. I'd give it 7.5/10 if I could; unfortunately, I can't, so I'll round it up to 8/10.
New Line= stellar transfers. Blow= an especially good transfer, even by their standards. Need I say more? A 10/10 effort here, with a flawless print transferred beautifully to a 2.35:1 anamorphic picture.
The 5.1 mix provided does a very nice (and surprisingly active) job of integrating the period music, dialogue and the various sound effects. While not an action film or blockbuster, this is about as good a piece of sound design as you would find on a film like this, and is a pleasure to listen to.
DVD has come on since its early days, when a trailer and director's commentary were thought to constitute a special edition of some sort. When the sheer quantity and quality of supplements here are assessed, it's an overwhelming experience to think of how the forthcoming editions of Pearl Harbor, The Godfather trilogy, Star Wars episode 1, Shrek etc, with their 12 hours of extras, are actually going to be watched; it took me the best part of an evening to go through all the material here, although the quality of it meant that it was certainly an enjoyable experience, and the Infinifilm format certainly helped!
First up is the director's commentary, featuring occasional comments from the real George Jung (i.e he's doing a commentary from prison, which is a first). Demme obviously wants to be considered a great director along the same lines as Paul Thomas Anderson, and so his commentary track is full of references to his influences and ideas. Definitely worth a listen, although it's Jung's comments that really grip, giving a profoundly human sense to the events unfolding on screen.
The 'beyond the movie' features (all of which can be accessed during the film) are slightly more specialised than those found on the 15 Minutes and 13 Days DVDs; we have a very dry 20-minute documentary on the social impact of cocaine on Columbia, and a very technical look at the biological processes of addiction. Full marks to New Line for their inclusion, but they're more useful as a cure for insomnia than entertainment. The best feature in this section is the 'fact track', which is a subtitle stream of consistently interesting historical trivia that plays while you watch the film.
The more traditional special features are all excellent, and very watchable. There are 7 deleted scenes, which can be watched with Demme's commentary on. Thanks to Infinifilm, it's possible to watch them in a crude form of seamless branching, where you can see their position in the film. As usual, they're a mixed bag of time-wasting filler and superb scenes that perhaps shouldn't have been cut, with the highlights being another two scenes featuring Pablo Escobar, which showcase Cliff Curtis' excellent performance more fully.
Next up are some more unusual extras. The 'character outtakes' are short filmed pieces of all the supporting characters talking about Jung, and their feelings about him. These feel somewhat strange to watch, but they're very entertaining, and certainly add to one's appreciation of the individual characters, as well as Jung himself. The 'production diary' is a 25-minute behind-the-scenes documentary about making the film, which is like a shorter version of the seminal Magnolia documentary (again, the PT Anderson comparisons!); it's very interesting, and the laid-back atmosphere on the set's a nice contrast to the infamously hyped-up scenes on most film sets. The extras are rounded off by a lacklustre music videos, cast and crew bios, and a couple of very effective trailers.
A good to very good film gets a truly stellar DVD release. The fact that, rather than it being the best DVD of the year so far, it is merely yet another very good DVD release speaks volumes about the consistent quality of true 'special edition' DVDs being released these days. Recommended.