A Sad Under-Portrayal of the Ambassador of Cocaine

Ted Demme’s Blow ,

from a screenplay by David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes, based on the book by

Bruce Porter, has left me with such a flat feeling of futility that I can’t help

wondering why the picture was made at all. The fact that the protagonist’s

misadventures really happened, more or less, to a cocaine trafficker named

George Jung is more an alibi than an advantage.

Johnny Depp plays George Jung from beginning to end in the

spirit of the Stanislavskian acting axiom that less is more, and the script is

contrived to make Mr. Depp’s character the long-haired, passive victim of

multiple betrayals, most odiously by his shrewish mother (Rachel Griffiths in a

broadly comic turn) and his ultra-bitchy Latin bombshell wife (Penélope  Cruz). Indeed, George is betrayed by just

about everyone he goes into business with to promote the sale and distribution

of cocaine to upscale consumers in the 70’s.

There are only two warmly giving relationships in George’s

hedonistic life: the first with airline stewardess and cocaine courier Barbara

Buckley (Franka Potente, the German sensation of Run Lola Run ), who dies of cancer while George is doing a short

stretch in prison, and the second with his daughter Kristina, from little

girlhood (Emma Roberts) to fantasy adulthood (James King). In terms of

contemporary Hollywood parlance, there is simply no “arc” to George’s criminal

destiny. He just steadily fades into middle-aged prison pallor after a mostly

joyless life of crime in which he spends most of his time with his hair over

his eyes, attired in eye-catching assemblages of late-60’s and early-70’s

casual style.

Unlike Traffic , Blow never even mildly suggests that the

war on drugs is as misguided a mission as Prohibition was in its time. Yet

neither are we given a long-winded sermon with the theme of “crime does not

pay.” Crime obviously does pay for some people, but not, in the long run, for

poor George. The introduction of the once-powerful Colombian cocaine-cartel

chieftain Pablo Escobar is bathed in an aura of Great Man worship, with no

intimations of his eventual downfall in real life. Similarly, the massive

importation of cocaine into the States is treated, albeit sketchily, as a

historical milestone of its time, with fleeting images of lust and dissipation

as decade markers.

If George winds up a victim and a loser, his blue-collar

father, Ray Liotta’s Micawberish Fred Jung, is a masochist in marriage and a

loser in everything else from the word go. But he never loses faith in his

son’s promise, even when his son is behind bars in a penitentiary. Indeed, the

film reaches its heights of sappy sentimentality in the scenes shared by George

and his father as they try to find a little peace from the screaming-banshee

wives in their midst.

And if you wonder whatever happened to Pee-wee Herman

(a.k.a. Paul Reubens), he has matured into an only slightly fey character actor

with the ability to take a potentially facetious figure of fun with the campy

name of Derek Foreal and move him into unexpected depths of dramatic

seriousness. All in all, however, facetiousness is not as fatal a problem for Blow as sheer aimlessness. Stanislavsky

notwithstanding, Mr. Depp has proven on this occasion, despite his undeniable

gifts and sharp instincts, that sometimes less is indeed less.

Our Man in Panama

John Boorman’s The

Tailor of Panama , from a screenplay by John le Carré, Mr. Boorman and

Andrew Davies, based on the book by Mr. le Carré, has more than a few failings as

a spy spoof, but in these barren days for film critics, we beggars cannot be

choosers. As it is, I liked the film better than Carol Reed and Graham Greene’s

Our Man in Havana (1960), but not as

much as Carol Reed and Graham Greene’s The

Third Man (1949). In between-and all the way to the collapse of the Berlin

Wall in 1989-we have all the Cold War spy movies from all over, and the

non–Cold War James Bond movies in which the growling Russian bear was reduced

to an amiable teddy bear.

Pierce Brosnan, the latest and glossiest of the Bonds,

resurfaces here as Andy Osnard, a disgraced, indiscreetly womanizing

intelligence agent exiled to Panama, where he makes contact with Geoffrey

Rush’s Harry Pendel, the duplicitous tailor of the title. Perhaps “duplicitous”

is too strong a word, but Harry has hitherto been harmlessly fibbing about his

supposed Savile Row background to conceal from his adored wife Louisa (Jamie

Lee Curtis) his Cockney-Jewish roots, complete with a prison record. Harry’s

alliance with Osnard is hardly driven by trust in the good faith of the

obviously sleazy British agent, but he has no choice in view of his ruinous

debts, which threaten both his comfortable lifestyle and his marriage to his

wife, an influential consultant to Panamanian officials overseeing the canal.

What Harry finally sells to Osnard are fabricated “secret”

government plans to turn the canal over to a consortium of countries hostile to

American trade interests. The point of the film is that this is the kind of

nonsense that post–Cold War spies on both sides have been forced to peddle.

When Harry’s lies suddenly get out of control, it leads to a second American

invasion of Panama and the complete extinction of any trace of moral idealism

in any sector of Panamanian politics. In the interim, Osnard makes a successful

play for a British Embassy staffer named Francesca (Catherine McCormack), who

is almost as cynical and world-weary as Osnard himself. But he is less

successful with Harry’s wife Louisa, who is that rarity in recent films: a

woman who is both smart and good, as well as loyal to her husband at all costs.

Another striking female character is Maria (Leonor Varela),

who bears the marks of political torture on her face. She and Mickie Abraxas

(Brendan Gleeson), her drunken comrade in the anti-Noriega movement, are just

about all that is left of the revolutionary underground in Panama that Harry

and Osnard are trying to palm off on the Pentagon as an alternative to the

falsely accused central government. The almost eerie quiet that has settled

over Panama since the Canal Zone and the canal were turned over to native

authorities makes The Tailor of Panama

even more of a fantasy with an anti-American bias than it might have been a

decade or so ago, when Senator Jesse Helms was on a headline-generating rampage

over the loss of U.S. territorial sovereignty over this precious strip of

Panama.

Still, The Tailor of

Panama is a welcome return to directorial prominence for the 68-year-old

Mr. Boorman, whose career I have been following intermittently ever since 1965,

when he made his feature-film debut with Having

a Wild Weekend , a pleasantly film-buffish vehicle for the Dave Clark Five

in the wake of Richard Lester’s A Hard

Day’s Night (1964) with the Beatles. The Dave Clark Five do not even make

trivia quizzes anymore, but Mr. Boorman went on, in 1967, to make Point Blank and, in 1972, Deliverance , two visually stylish action

classics that remain his most impressive achievements to date-though he has won

awards for Leo the Last (1970) and Hope and Glory (1987). He is a strange

mix of dedicated film archivist and physical adventurer, thus melding the old

and the ever-changing new into often bizarre concoctions. Over the years, he

has put more and more of himself and his talented children into his movie

projects, and he keeps demonstrating that the flair is still there, despite the

increasingly fearsome obstacles in his path.

When the Motion

Picture Was a Mystery

Ann Hu’s Shadow Magic ,

from a screenplay by Huang Dan, Tang Louyi, Kate Raisz, Bob McAndrew and Ms.

Hu, is set in imperial Peking in 1902, right after the Boxer Rebellion had made

the Chinese people deeply suspicious of anything Western. Though photography

has long been institutionalized and commercialized in Peking-the Feng Tai Photo

Shop is one of the key locales in the film-no one in the Peking of 1902 has yet

seen a moving picture. The very idea sounds infernally and subversively

Western.

But as in all societies,

there is a young curiosity-seeker who is not afraid of the future, even if it

is conveyed technologically by an alien culture. His name in the film is Liu

Jinglun (Xia Yu), and the character is based on a real-life culture hero named

Liu Zhong Lun, the chief photographer at the Feng Tai Photo Shop. When we first

see him, he is rummaging through some trash to retrieve an old phonograph on

which he plays an old Caruso recording. At almost the same moment, Lord Tan (Li

Yu Sheng), a celebrated Chinese opera singer, enters the shop for a sitting,

listens to Caruso for an impatient moment and declares that he finds Western

music too obtrusive and extravagant. This early culture clash foreshadows the

later conflict over the “shadow magic” introduced to Peking by an Englishman

named Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris), a composite character representing the

few now-unknown Europeans who introduced motion pictures to China.

The plot itself is simple almost to the point of naïveté.

Liu offers his services to the Englishman, and incurs the wrath of his father

and his employer. A marriage has been arranged for him with a wealthy widow,

but he has fallen in love with Ling (Xiu Yufei), the dutiful daughter of Lord

Tan, whose audiences are shrinking because of the appeal of the Englishman’s

shadow magic. In the end, after many setbacks, Liu succeeds in introducing the

shadow magic to his compatriots, and wins Ling in the process.

It is all moderately predictable, if not clumsily

telegraphed, and yet the spectacle of the Chinese seeing the first Lumière and

Méliès movies from France is continuously mesmerizing from beginning to end. I

can’t think of a better subject for movies than the movies themselves,

especially the experience of seeing the movies for the first time, as so many

Chinese people did in 1902.