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*Also starring: Tomas Milian, Topher Grace, Luis Guzman, James Brolin, Don Cheadle, Erika Christensen, Benicio Del Toro, Miguel Ferrer, Salma Hayek

Review by Dustin Putman
4 stars out of 4

A sprawling, candid mosaic of the controversial, bitter war on drugs in the United States, Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic," loosely based on the 1989 BBC miniseries, "Traffik," offers no easy answers, nor does he attempt to sugarcoat the bleak topic into something that can ever change in today's society. Presenting a wide array of characters from different social standings, and showing how drugs have the power to impact everyone's life in one way or another, the film is truly spellbinding and often thought-provoking from its beginning to the end, 2 1/2-hours later.

Filmed in alternate, cleverly chosen hues, depending on where the scene is set and which storyline we are involved in, director Soderbergh (who also acted as the cameraman, under the pseudonym Peter Andrews) adapts a "you-are-there" style of filmmaking, with shaky, hand-held shots, and a screenplay, expertly developed by Stephen Gaghan, that is never anything less than convincing. The enormous, flawlessly-chosen cast, with each performance pitch-perfect, work as a unit in order to bring their roles to life, aiding in the entire picture's almost frightening, harsh realism. And Steven Soderbergh (who had great luck earlier in the year with the more mainstream, yet inferior, "Erin Brockovich") joins Robert Altman (1975's "Nashville") and Paul Thomas Anderson (1999's "Magnolia") as one of the only contemporary filmmakers to successfully make an ensemble film with such an ambitious, epic scope.

The first subplot is set in Tijuana, with Javier Rodriguez (Benecio Del Toro) and Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) two cops out to bust a planned cocaine transfer in the middle of the desert. Their plan goes awry when Army General Salazar (Tomas Milian) intercepts, later employing Javier and Manolo to find and capture hired assassin Francisco Flores (Clifton Collins Jr.), who is, in turn, linked to wealthy drug dealer Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer).

Living in San Diego, California, Carlos is arrested and handcuffed, much to the dismay of his pampered wife, Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Helena, who is six months pregnant with her second child, is clueless as to why her husband has been taken to prison until she is clued in by her defense lawyer Arnie Metzger (Dennis Quaid) on why they, in fact, have so much money. Desperate to get Carlos off the hook, and with her son in danger if she doesn't come up with $3-million, Helena finds herself taking over her husband's illegal business in an attempt to return everything to the way it was.

Meanwhile, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is appointed Drug Czar for Washington, D.C., which takes him away from his Cincinatti-based family for long stretches of time. As Robert prepares to grasp the U.S.'s drug problems by the throat, he has no idea that his 16-year-old daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen), a straight-A honor student, has been introduced by her prep school friends to freebasing heroin, and is slowly wavering out of control.

In the style of the aforementioned "Nashville" and "Magnolia," there are no main characters in "Traffic," nor are there any outright heroes or villains. The movie features, not one, but many different plotlines, each of which evolves as things do in real life, rather than the way they are expected to by the viewer. And every actor stunningly supports the next as they portray flawed individuals who have, in some way, become involved with today's distressing drug culture.

The performances are first-rate across the board, any one of which is more than worthy of notice. Benicio Del Toro (2000's "The Way of the Gun") is almost always the standout feature of any movie in which his presence graces, and he is no exception here. As the inherently honest Javier, Del Toro steals the show whenever he appears, and proves what an extraordinary physical aura he gives off, reminiscent of Russell Crowe or Brad Pitt. It seems Del Toro is almost too big of a star to even fit on camera, let alone in any movie that is nothing less than equal to his talents.

As DEA agents Montel Gordon and Ray Castro, whose sting operation of drug dealer Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer) leads them to the arrest of Carlos Ayala, Don Cheadle (1997's "Boogie Nights") and Luis Guzman ("Magnolia") develop a close-relationed camaraderie that acts as one of the major emotional centers of the whole picture. Cheadle is especially outstanding in a truly likable turn.

Aside from being a rapturous beauty with a definite skill at line-reading, a very-much-pregnant Catherine Zeta-Jones (1999's "Entrapment") unearths herself as a stirring actress, bringing a palpable grittiness and poignance to her portrayal of a woman who finds herself in the most dire of circumstances, and will do anything under her will to save her gradually deteriorating family life.

In the most effective of the subplots, Michael Douglas (2000's "Wonder Boys") underplays to ultimate perfection his role as Robert Wakefield, a man passionate about making a difference concerning today's drug problems, yet too naive and focused on his work to realize he has an addict living within the walls of his own house. Lending fine support in one of the strongest minor roles, Amy Irving (1976's "Carrie") is quietly effective as Robert's lonely wife, Barbara, who blames herself when their daughter's life spins out of control.

Finally, newcomer Erika Christensen, as Robert's teenage daughter, Caroline, makes an unforgettable debut with the most heartbreaking character in the film. In the early scenes, which show Caroline recreationally taking drugs with her pals from school, including Topher Grace (TV's "That '70s Show") and Majandra Delfino (TV's "Roswell"), there is an accuracy present that rarely is achieved in the world of film. The sequence where Caroline is first introduced to heroin, which is followed by a single tear dropping down her cheek as she exhales from freebasing for the first time, is one of the most haunting images I've ever seen depicted on film. Christensen, like Soderbergh's treatment of this portion of the film, injects Caroline with such a tragic, raw power that it is often almost too difficult to watch.

Director Soderbergh has made his share of fine films in the past, not the least of being his acclaimed 1989 breakthrough, "Sex, Lies & Videotape," but "Traffic" is the very first of his efforts that could easily be considered a masterpiece. Always involving, always intelligent, and never coy about its high aspirations, Soderbergh wants each viewer to take something a little different away from the film, not necessarily caring what that one thing might be as long as he's sure it won't soon be forgotten. A grand entertainment, "Traffic" is one of the best Hollywood productions to come out of the pipeline in years, and its final statement is one of unshakable and disturbing finality. The drug culture in the United States, states Soderbergh, is a war that can most certainly be fought, but one that is never likely to be won.

Copyright 2000 Dustin Putman

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