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Traffic

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4


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



Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
3 stars out of 4

What a year 2000 has been for director Steven Soderbergh. After releasing "Out of Sight" and "The Limey" in 1999 to great critical acclaim, but little attention from filmgoers, the 37-year-old hit two out of the ballpark in 2000, beginning the year with "Erin Brokovich" and wrapping it up with "Traffic," a rich, multi-layered look at the illegal drug industry, based on a five hour 1989 British miniseries. Soderbergh tackles a lot with this bold, uncompromising project and pulls it off in grand fashion, with only a few missteps along the way.

To his credit, Soderbergh never gets on the soapbox about the American government's highly trumpeted, controversial "War on Drugs." "We were trying to personalize all of it, on both sides of the issue," he told USA Today. "Nobody in law enforcement will look at you with a straight face and say, 'We are winning the war on drugs.' And that's really all that we're laying out."

The film shifts between four storylines, using various color tints and film stocks for the different scenarios. It begins with bleached out sepia tones in Tijuana, where local cops Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) intercept a large cocaine transaction in the desert, only to have General Salazar (Tomas Milian) and his troops swoop in and take the stash.

Cut to upscale America and blue hues as Ohio State Supreme Court Justice Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) prepares to become our country's new drug czar. What the judge doesn't know is that his 16-year-old daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen), has just been introduced to the joys of freebasing.

Bold colors and raw stock dominate as we shift to Southern California, where DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) conduct a sting on mid-level dealer, Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer), hoping to force him to turn informant.

Meanwhile, pregnant and glowing Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones) glides regally through the upper crust life, unaware that her husband, Carlos (Steven Bauer) is the drug kingpin being sought by the agents for supplying Ruiz and many, many others.

Soderbergh juggles the storylines with grace and style, using hand-held cameras and well-chosen jump cuts to maintain a sense of immediacy. Although the film features a whopping 130 speaking parts, keeping track of the participants is not difficult.

Because of his reputation as an actor's director, Soderbergh has no trouble landing talent and this production features his most dazzling roster yet. Down to the smallest part, the casting is impeccable, with a number of standouts. "Boogie Nights" veterans Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman make a great team, with Cheadle's buttery voice and bright demeanor contrasting neatly with Guzman's gritty tones and bulldog nature. Miguel Ferrer, who consistently stole scenes in "Twin Peaks" as Albert, the deliciously caustic FBI agent, bristles with desperate indignation while radiating a feral sexuality as a dealer backed into a corner. As usual, Catherine Zeta-Jones simmers with a potent combination of intelligence and unnerving serenity. Best of all is Benicio Del Toro, whose weathered face and deep, soulful eyes mesh perfectly with his tired, but unstoppable character. Often cast as a villain, Del Toro is far more effective as a hero.

The movie has some problem areas, most springing from Stephen Gaghan’s script. The transformation of Zeta-Jone's character once she learns the truth about her husband is needlessly abrupt; an extra scene depicting her struggling with the revelation might have smoothed things out. Michael Douglas' character would also have benefited from some additional shading. Initially, he comes off as anemic and tentative. Later, when he goes to rescue his daughter, he appears overly reminiscent of Charles Bronson in "Death Wish," with periodic echoes of his own attack mode persona in "Falling Down."

But the shakiest portions of the film deal with security measures, specifically those involving a car bomb and an assassin out to make a hit. Revealing the details would spoil a couple of scenes, so I'll simply say this: If you ever become famous, DO NOT hire these officers as bodyguards.

Some critics have faulted "Traffic" for wrapping its storylines ineffectually, but I disagree. The conclusions presented simply reflect what happens in the real world when lives become immersed in drugs. Some people live, while others die. Some users keep using, while others go into recovery and try to hang on. Some dealers flourish, while others eventually get caught. The bottom line remains the same: The government will continue their war, however ill-conceived, but they will not win, because too many of us are driven to self-medicate and, as long as there is a market, the dealers will find a way.

Copyright © 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott

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