Benicio Del Toro may have been officially anointed the best (supporting) actor in the world thanks to Oscar, but the overall best thespian in Hollywood is Johnny Depp. Since his humble beginnings as an ersatz Mod Squad cop in the Fox series 21 Jump Street, Depp has shown more promise and delivered on it better than any of his contemporaries. Depp seeks out creative directors (Oliver Stone, John Waters, Tim Burton, Jim Jarmusch, Terry Gilliam, Roman Polanski, and Emir Kusturica, among others), and likes sharing the screen with strong co-stars (Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, Jerry Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio--even Benicio Del Toro). The only other actor with comparable creds is Tom Cruise, who happened to get to Kubrick before he died.

American playwright/actor William Gillette called good acting "the illusion of the first time." This is Depp's strong suit. Take the scene about 20 minutes into Blow when Depp (as George Jung, a Massachusetts native gone SoCal in the late '60s and now a burgeoning dope dealer) comes home to his beachfront apartment to find he has a surprise visitor: Kevin (the ever weaslely Max Perlich), an old friend from the neighborhood. As Depp settles on the floor and unburdens himself of the sack of pot he's been carrying around, he and Perlich have a conversation about the potential Depp's dope has on the East Coast. Every sentence that comes out of Depp is almost embarrassingly real, yet not the product of ostentatious acting. His delivery is subtle, valid, and lays part of the groundwork for a tale that relies on the realism of the actors to carry its more fantastical elements.

Blow is based on a book about Jung, now serving 60 years in a federal prison. Directed by Ted Demme, brother of Jonathan, it follows Jung upwardly from a conflicted family life to his father (Ray Liotta), a loving loser, and his mother (Rachel Griffiths), a selfish, status-conscious, betraying virago out of an Oliver Stone movie. Jung finds that he's good at drug dealing; his national pot distribution network works until he is arrested. His cellmate introduces him, post-slammer, to no less than Pablo Escobar (the great, chameleon-like Cliff Curtis), head of a Columbia cocaine cartel. Thanks to his California connection, Derek (Paul Reubens), Jung introduces cocaine to America, gets a beautiful wife (Penelope Cruz) and a lot of fancy cars. Eventually, a series of betrayals spur his downfall.

Blow is based on a true story, but still feels derivative. Though Demme's film is lively and never boring, it doesn't have the zest of Goodfellas or the raw rage of Scarface. Like Traffic, it takes a routine attitude to drugs: they are uniformly bad and destroy all the lives they touch. For once, I'd like to see a drug film about a nice guy who carefully sells drugs to responsible people, lives an uneventful life, and dies peaceably in his sleep at the age of 80 after a life of good works and many charitable contributions.

On the other hand, Blow takes a fairly sentimental view of Jung's career. It is unlikely you have seen a movie so sympathetic to a living, incarcerated man who admits to doing the things that put him in prison. Blow ends with a title card lamenting that Jung's beloved daughter still hasn't visited him there. Talk about guilt-tripping. Messages, as the wise hacks of Hollywood never tire of saying, should be sent by Western Union. Budgeted at $30 million, Blow sends a pretty expensive telegram.