Dir: Ted Demme. US. 2001. 120mins.

Using Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson's sprawling masterpiece about the porn industry as a model, Ted Demme's Blow is a solid but unexciting epic about the rise of the US cocaine subculture, told through real-life figure George Jung (now in jail). Johnny Depp gives a dominant performance as the first American to mass import the drug, who for two decades pursued the American Dream using charisma and entrepreneurial skills.

Though ambitious in scope and impressive in style, Blow lacks the emotional depth, strong characterisation and social resonance to belong to the same league as Boogie Nights or even Brian DePalma's Scarface. In the current climate of ideas, strong critical support will be needed for it to get beyond mid-range numbers.

Blow uses the crime-gangster format of the rise and fall of a small-town American boy, whose deprived origins and strong ambition to make it big result in a distorted take on the American Dream, measured by the consumption of Learjets, expensive cars and beautiful women.

The story begins with George's childhood in 1960s Massachusetts, where he was raised by a hard-working father (Liotta) who never amounted to much and an argumentative mother (Griffiths). George's parents act as negative role models, for he vows that he will never have to work as hard as his dad nor worry about money as much as his mother.

His adult life sees a happy-go-lucky Californian hippie who falls for Barbara (Franka Potente), who in turn introduces him to his first drug contact. It is also here that George meets Derek (Reubens), a gay hairdresser who dabbles in pot before turning into a major cocaine distributor.

The first shock that life is not fair comes when Barbara falls victim to a fatal disease. But the key point occurs after George meets Diego Delgado (Jordi Molla), who claims to be an insider in Colombia's new drug trade, while in jail. George is drawn to cocaine as big business, but later greed and betrayal damage their relationships. The main section shows how George takes his individualism to extremes, living a fantasy, no-rules lifestyle, literally breathing and eating money. The scariest chapters see Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis), head of the Colombian drug cartels involved in scenes of border crossings, brutal executions and money laundering that recall Traffic.

David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes' script (based on Bruce Porter's book How A Small-Town Boy Made $100 Million With The Medellin Cocaine Cartel And Lost It All) cares too much for plot and not enough for in-depth characterisations, especially in the second half, which culminates in George's final imprisonment. The family background is also too simple to explain George's personality, which must have had more facets than the film allows. Framed as a cautionary fable the tale is riveting, but George fails to engage the attention and has a hard time eliciting our compassion as the least likely person to become an international criminal.

Despite its intent, Blow is devoid of the tragic vision that made The Godfather trilogy and GoodFellas so compelling. It aims to combine an intimate portrait of George yearning for acceptance and an epic tale about the US crime culture of the past three decades, but works best as the story of a man who used ingenuity, ambition and courage to reach the top, only to blow his dreams on greed. George reflects his times; like the US itself, he journeys from innocence (the 1960s) to decadence (the 1970s) to retribution and redemption (the 1980s), discovering the meaning of love in the hardest way.

Rendering an intelligent and subtle performance, Depp delves into George's darkest psyche as far as the script allows, but it's not deep enough. Still, he captures George's dizzying rise and the psychology of a man whose inside knowledge of smuggling makes his existence edgy and risky. Depp interprets George as a modern-day pirate who did not believe in the validity of the political or legal system and whose vision of freedom swooped him up.Penelope Cruz appears in the last hour as George's demanding wife. She gives a shrill performance in an underwritten role that calls for hysteria and profanity, but provides little shading.

Prod cos: Spanky Pictures, Apostle Production. Dist (US): New Line. Int'l dist: New Line International. Exec prods: Georgia Kacandes, Michael De Luca. Prods: Ted Demme, Joel Stillerman, Denis Leary. Scr: David McKenna, Nick Cassavetes, based on the book by Bruce Porter. Cinematography: Ellen Kuras. Prod des: Michael Hanan. Ed: Kevin Tent. Music: Graeme Revell. Main cast: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Ray Liotta, Rachel Griffiths, Paul Reubens