Depp's fresh air for stale

Johnny Depp hasn't been on a roll lately, and it's not sure that "Blow" will help him out, although he's unquestionably the best thing about it.

Not so many years ago, Depp was a teen heartthrob in pictures like "Edward Scissorhands" and "Cry Baby," where his combination of handsome looks and acting talent created momentum for what promised to be an upward-bound career.

If things have stalled along the way, it's probably because he's chosen interesting projects like "Ed Wood" and "Arizona Dream" rather than movies with solid box-office prospects. It's hard to think of another current star who's put so much imaginative acting into so many imaginative movies that so few people wanted to see. Think of "Dead Man" and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," and you'll see my point.

"Blow" is not a very imaginative movie, especially since it's basically a knockoff from Martin Scorsese's far superior "GoodFellas" of 1990. "Based on a true story," as the opening credits assure us, it spins the adventures of George Jung, a small-time California crook who went to jail on a marijuana conviction and spent his prison time learning the intricacies of the cocaine trade. (This explains the film's title, a slang term for cocaine.) Jung then becomes a big-time associate of Pablo Escobar's notorious Colombia drug cartel. Along the way he loses a wife or two, gets betrayed by friends, and learns that there's little honor among thieves.

Depp lends a touch of class to this inherently stale stuff by playing Jung with his trademarked understatement, evoking psychological depth and emotional power with far less showiness than many of his peers would have brought to the part.

"Blow" was directed by Ted Demme, whose uneven career includes the underrated "Beautiful Girls," one of the best-acted movies of recent years.

He still has a skill for eliciting heartfelt performances, and for assembling first-rate supporting casts. "Blow" benefits from expert work by Ray Liotta and Rachel Griffiths as Jung's parents, Jordi Molla and Max Perlich as friends, Paul Reubens as a drug-selling hairdresser, and Bobcat Goldthwait as a dope dealer.

"Blow" can't resist glamorizing drugs in its rock 'n' rolling depictions of the 1970s and '80s cocaine scene, but its final message is that one person's crime can ruin an entire family's life. It's hard to argue with that, or with the subtlety of Depp's acting. He's a gifted star who deserves more-impressive cinema vehicles.

Rated R; contains violence, nudity, and frequent drug use.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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