Blow (2001)
New Line Home Entertainment
Cast: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Paul Reubens
Extras: Commentary Track, George Jung Interviews, Featurettes, Deleted Scenes, Music Video, Production Diary, and much more

Gee, another Hollywood production focusing on the illegal drug scene. While ostensibly a cautionary tale of the fate destined to befall those who make the narcotics trade the focus of their lives, "Blow" follows in the footsteps of most such films by romanticizing and glorifying that which it claims to demonize. What is it about the drug scene that so appeals to filmmakers and the film-going public? And is this dark appeal really any different than the glory days of the gangster film during the Prohibition era? I’m afraid I don’t have the answers but what is clear is that director Ted Demme’s "Blow" is the type of film that will appeal to those who enjoy this unique genre and will probably be of little interest to those who don’t.

It’s 1968 and George Jung (Johnny Depp) is off to California to live the good life and escape from his dreary and destitute family back East. Not wanting to burden himself with a real job, Jung and his childhood chum Tuna (Ethan Suplee) decide to smuggle some pot in from Mexico and make a killing selling it to college kids. The drugs are brought in by their stewardess neighbors who get a cut of the action and Jung soon falls for the lovely Barbara (Franka Potente). But the good life eventually comes to a screeching halt through a terrible personal loss and a stint in the pokey.

Illustrating the old adage that prison is the best place to train criminals, George befriends Diego Delgado (Jordi Mollà) who, upon their release, introduces him to the lucrative world of hardcore drug dealing. Soon, Jung becomes involved with Columbia’s Medellín drug cartel and, if he is to be believed, almost single-handedly jumpstarts the American cocaine market.

Great wealth soon follows, along with the lovely and mercurial Mirtha (Penélope Cruz), but the more successful he becomes, the more George begins to give into paranoia. And with good reason. The Columbians want Jung out of the loop, the feds want him in prison, and his wife and daughter just want to give up on him altogether. Eventually, the inevitable happens and George Jung is sent up the river for a long, long time.

"Blow" is the story of the rise and fall of a regular Joe who just so happened to become enormously wealthy and powerful through the drug trade. It’s hard to sympathize with the man as he wasn’t forced into this life through any dire circumstances. George Jung made all of his bad decisions on his own and I’m not sure why we should pity a man who was directly and indirectly responsible for so much suffering. Sure, his life looks exciting at times but it’s clear that even he is unhappy and, if he had had any smarts, he would have got out of the business while the getting was good.

The one aspect of "Blow" that helps to elevate the story is the almost universal quality of its ensemble cast. Johnny Depp is his usual intense self and his interpretation of George Jung is eerily close to the character of the real man that comes across in the included interviews. Penélope Cruz is, of course, beautiful as Mirtha but I have yet to see her really mesh with any of the roles she’s been given in American films and her shrill portrayal here just gets grating after awhile. Contrast this with Franka Potente’s portrayal of Barbara which offers up much more emotion in only a fraction of the screen time. Paul Reubens’s middleman Derek Foreal is a nice turn by the actor and nobody plays a smarmy creep quite so well. And Ray Liotta offers a surprising turn as Fred Jung — a down-to-earth guy can’t help but feel proud of his son’s "accomplishments."

"Blow" is presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and is framed at its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. "Blow" is a highly stylized film and the resulting task of transferring Ted Demme’s directorial vision to DVD was likely a daunting one. Colors are lush and solid although a few scenes are intentionally dulled. Likewise, the overall image is sharp except for a handful of instances in which a softer filter is utilized. Black levels are solid and accurate and even the darkest scenes are alive with fine detail. Film grain comes and goes and is once again an intentional device. I could detect no glaring edge enhancement but there are some compression artifacts that are likely the result of trying to cram so much content onto one DVD — this is the main shortcoming of the single-disc-only Infinifilm line. In general, however, this is a very solid transfer of some tricky video material.

Audio is presented in English <$DD,Dolby Digital> 2.0 Surround and <$5.1,5.1 mix>es. The addition of a <$DTS,DTS> soundtrack would have been nice but, as in the case of "Thirteen Days," there simply isn’t enough room on a single disc to hold multiple 5.1 tracks and a wealth of extras. That being said, the Dolby Digital <$5.1,5.1 channel> track is outstanding. Dynamic range is superb with clear highs and frequent deep bass. Surrounds are used to great effect to provide ambiance and to open up the musical score. And the music itself comes on strong with the bulk of the songs being vintage work by the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and their ilk. The original compositions are by Graeme Revell but his fine work can’t stand against the constant barrage of 70s rock. Dialogue is always understandable and nicely centered and the soundtrack maintains a solid balance between the different elements resulting in an audio presentation that is always clear and lively.

Now we get to that part of the review that attempts to explain what exactly makes up an Infinifilm release. To sum it up, it’s a boatload of extras laid out in an intuitive manner to convey as much historical and production-related background about the film as possible. The first thing that is important to know is that all the extras, save the commentary and Fast Track features, can be accessed through a standard DVD menu as well as through the Infinifilm interface so the casual DVD browser isn’t being left behind.

Also included on this release are helpful question marks that liberally pepper the DVD menus. Clicking on these icons brings up definitions for such terms as <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and Dolby Digital sound. It’s clear that New Line is trying hard to keep things simple and easy while at the same time advancing the state of the DVD art.

The Infinifilm features are divided into two sections. First is the "Beyond the Movie" area that gatherstogether all of the extras dealing with the historical events that inspired the film. Next is the "All Access Pass" section that contains bonus features dealing with the film itself. As an added bonus, each and every video-based extra is presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>.

Under the "Beyond the Movie" header we find a handful of extras focusing on the real-world impact of the drug trade as well as the real-life George Jung. First up are eight interviews with a jailhouse George Jung which run for 15 minutes in total. Here the real-life inspiration for the movie discusses his sordid past and his thoughts on the film. These interviews are full-frame but are windowboxed to remain consistent with the overall <$16x9,anamorphic> presentation. Also, Ted Demme filmed these snippets using a fish-eye lens so they look as though you’re peering through the peephole on your front door. An odd choice if you ask me.

Next up is the 25-minute featurette "Lost Paradise — Cocaine’s Impact on Columbia." This look at the impact of the illegal drug trade on the people of Columbia is presented in Spanish with English subtitles. Offering a wealth of interviews, and some very stark footage of the violence that is inherent in this business, "Lost Paradise" is a damning look at the social, political, and economic cost to Columbia stemming from the American demand for cocaine. This is grim viewing and does much to counteract any glorified notions that the feature film may have conjured up.

This is followed by "Addiction — Body and Soul," a brief six-minute look at the physical and psychological cost to those who have given their lives over to drugs. This is the kind of informational feature that we’ve all seen a million times but, presented in the context of this film, it once again serves as a counterweight to the seemingly glamorous life that the movie depicts. Rounding out the "Beyond the Movie" features is what’s billed as a Fast Track. This is a subtitle track akin to that used on such DVDs as "Abyss" in which pertinent facts and snippets appear on screen during the film. I’m a big fan of this type of feature as it offers up the same type of information generally available on a spoken <$commentary,commentary track> but doesn’t interfere with the movie’s audio in any way.

Now we move on to the "All Access Pass" section of the disc that contains features pertaining to the film itself. First up is a <$commentary,commentary track> with director Ted Demme and George Jung. Most of the track consists of Demme discussing the creation of the film and he is obviously enthusiastic about the project. I would have liked to hear from some of the cast members as well but what we get instead are a handful of separately recorded comments from George Jung that expand significantly on what he has to say in his interviews. More from Jung would have done much to liven up this otherwise solid <$commentary,commentary track>. Next up is the Production Diary which offers video shot by Demme to chronicle the 63-day shoot of "Blow." Totalling about 17 minutes, these 12 snippets can beviewed sequentially or on their own and are presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> with the ubiquitous fish-eye lens. This is followed by the Deleted Scenes section offering ten scenes that can be viewed individually or as a group and with or without Ted Demme’s commentary. Technical quality of the scenes is on par with thefeature film although it’s clear as to why most of these were ultimately excised from the final film. Of primary interest here is the alternate beginning scene.

Next is what’s billed as Character Outtakes. These six snippets feature various actors in character discussing their fondness for George Jung. These are quite amusing, although somewhat strange, and, like everything else on the disc, are presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>. Rounding out the "All Access Pass" bonus features are the four-minute music video for Nikki Costa’s "Push and Pull," the Theatrical and Teaser trailers for "Blow," and Cast & Crew Filmographies for the primary talent. But wait, there’s more. Those with DVD-ROM capability can also read the film’s complete screenplay with direct scene access — or print it out in its entirety — and visit the official theatrical website.

So then, what exactly is Infinifilm? Well, New Line has been nice enough to offer a menu entry that answers that very question. While most of these excellent bonus features are available individually through the standard menu interface, you can also choose to have them integrated within the film itself by selecting the Play Infinifilm option. At every chapter stop during the movie a translucent blue bar appears at the bottom of the screen offering links to content related to the on-screen action. Selecting one of these links takes the viewer out of the movie to view the bonus feature then returns them to their previous spot in the film when they’re finished. The Infinifilm interface works very well and is a unique way to wade through all of the bonus features in a very intuitive and logical way.

While I appreciate the amount of work that has gone into creating the Infinifilm line of DVDs I can’t help but wonder if some of the films selected for this special treatment wouldn’t benefit more from a standard two-disc release. The major drawback with Infinifilm is that the user interface requires that all content be located on the same disc. The end result is a lack of audio options, slightly compromised video quality, and the inability to offer features beyond what can be crammed onto a single DVD.

Personally, I still prefer to access special features directly as the piecemeal fashion in which they’re served up through the Infinifilm interface tends to pull the viewer out of the experience of the film. Fortunately, New Line has been wise enough to offer the bonus features in both ways so I really have no quibble with the presentation.

The DVD itself is of the usual New Line quality although I’m beginning to suspect that the inherent limits of the Infinifilm design may result in a slight loss of overall quality and a definite loss in audio choices. That being said, the audio and video are really quite good. As for the extras, well, this disc is packed with them. Although I have been ragging on Infinifilm a bit I will say that the driving force behind this line of discs results in bonus features that are informative, relevant, and in-depth and, in the case of "Blow," the film definitely benefits from the inclusion of some none-too-pleasant content that drives home the high price of the drug trade.

"Blow" is an entertaining enough film that benefits greatly from the fine work by its ensemble cast and the competent — if perhaps a bit too stylish — direction by Ted Demme. As my opening paragraph made clear, I’m not a huge fan of the drug film genre so it was unlikely going into this review that I would come away a big fan of the movie. "Blow" gains points for basing its story on a real-life character but even then there is nothing terribly new or interesting about the sorry tale of George Jung. There are no surprises to be found here and viewers should be able to determine for themselves beforehand if this is the type of film that they’re likely to enjoy.