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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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

What should be done about the problem of illegal drugs in the U.S.? Should our country deal with the supply side or the demand aspect? If the former, should we increase the funding for the border patrol? Give money to governments of countries which are known to supply large amounts of drugs so that they can fight the problem better on their own? If the latter, should we increase our education program? Jail suppliers and throw away the keys? These are solutions proposed in the past. Are we winning the drug war? No one on any side of the political spectrum thinks so. Millions upon millions of Americans make a market for the product. According to Steven Soderbergh's challenging new film, "Traffic," twenty-five percent of high-school kids are doing drugs, and the situation today is different from the way it was during the late 60's and 70's. Young people are not casually "experimenting" any more and the drugs are more plentiful and purer than they ever were. How do you cope with numbers like that when the bad guys have more money to keep the stuff flowing into our country and into our citizens' veins than our government can afford to halt the torrent?

Utilizing a screenplay by Stephen Gaghan (who scripted William Friedkin's"Rules of Engagement" but here eschews a crazed scenario that focussed on a Marine officer who "wastes" a throng of Arab demonstrators), Soderbergh makes ample use of hand-held cameras to build an edgy but highly intelligent police thriller. Giving the two and one-half hour drama the same docu-drama feel that he furnished to his first movie, "sex, lies and videotape" (about a selfish lawyer whose wife has turned frigid, whose sister-in-law is his lover, and whose college friend comes up for a visit), Soderbergh shucks that story's Eric-Rohmer style talkiness for the sort of energy inherent in his February blockbuster, "Erin Brockovich."

"Traffic," whose hand-held cinematography by Peter Andrews (a pseudonym for Soderbergh himself) gives the picture a frighteningly real texture, embraces enough twists to convince us that in this ongoing war on drugs, things are seldom what they seem. Twist follows curves, as Soderbergh plunges us into three separate stories. Unlike Robert Altman, he does not ultimately unify his tales but nonetheless shows how a narrative dealing with drug lords in Mexico meshes with a yarn about a family's attempts to deal with their daughter's addiction, which then plaits with the story of a criminal who turns coat and prepares to testify against a major U.S. kingpin. Despite the docu-drama feel of the movie, "Traffic" actually evokes the thrills of John Frankenheimer's "The French Connection."

Michael Douglas, now looking more like his dad than ever before, could be called the center of the three stories. In the role of Robert Wakefield, a conservative justice on the Ohio Supreme Court who has just been appointed by the president to head the Drug Enforcement Administration, the handsome actor symbolizes the cynicism that the so-called war on drugs elicits in people of all political stripes. Opening as a naive, gung-ho fighter who expects to make a real dent in drug traffic, he is bureaucratically restrained by the president's staff, which cautions Wakefield to hold no press conferences for several weeks and to deliver no speeches to the media unless cleared by the the administration. Convinced that he will learn nothing if he remains in the Beltway like so many other politicians, he travels to the Mexican border at San Ysidro, consulting with Mexican authorities and later with top officials of the FBI and other organizations. Naive to a fault, he is unaware that his own 16-year-old daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen), is a heroin addict--a fact known for months by his wife, Barbara (Amy Irving).

In a second undertaking, police officers Montel Gordon (played stirringly by Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) are determined to keep drug trafficker Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer) alive, at least long enough to testify against multi-millionarie kingpin Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer). Ayala's beautiful wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), naive in her way as Wakefield is in his, is unaware that her husband's money comes from the drug trade. The change that comes over her after the arrest of her husband mirrors the transformation of Wakefield upon learning of his young daughter's habit.

However the most gripping part of the picture centers on Mexican police officer Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro), an honest Tijuana cop who sees no problem accepting a meager salary of under $400 a month but who at the risk of his life is forced to become enmeshed in the rampant corruption now an actual part of his country's system. (As the voluminous press notes indicate, some Mexicans have been moving into the same position that criminals in Colombia have relished, providing a huge share of illegal substances smuggled partly through the 28-lane highway that leads from Tijuana to San Diego.)

Like many other filmmakers, Steven Soderbergh wants his films to be enjoyable to his audience. Entertainment is primary. He wants the bulk of his audience to come to the theater for the roller-coaster ride but to leave not only diverted from their daily cares but also encouraged to think about the deeper issues posed by the films. "Erin Brockovich" would likely be the example he would trot out: a story bolstered by Julia Roberts's over-the-top performance in the title role of a poor, undereducated mother. Her determination to fight a major polluter not only inspires the viewers but gets them to contemplate similar unscrupulous activities by large corporations in their own areas of the country.

While accounts of the drug trade are a daily staple in newspapers and TV reports, they do not give the public the kind of dramatic wholeness that a film like "Traffic" can produce. Soderbergh shows us the desperation that faces responsible people in the U.S. who cannot understand the great appeal drugs have for people across all walks of life. In one scene, Wakefield flies to Washington with a group of advisers, high-ranking officials of the FBI, the DEA and others, asking them to think out of the box--to come up with avenues of action perhaps never contemplated before. What he gets, essentially, is silence--his fellow travelers looking blankly at this drug czar as if asking for a solution to the problem confirms that he is looney.

While "Traffic" is in no way as stylized as the slicker "Erin Brockovich"--after all the story is filmed completely with hand- held cameras and a hefty dose of improvised dialogue--no one can fail to notice the effect of Soderbergh's use of color. To separate the mosaic, making clear to everyone which of the three stories is being projected at any given time, he divides the film into distinct hues, particularly tobacco-brown for the gritty areas of Mexico and executive blue for the opulent areas of the U.S. (the tony Cincinnati suburb of Hyde Park, for example). This is overkill. A more conventional use of filters would have done the job without creating this unnecessary set of distractions. For added authenticity he has the Mexicans speak Spanish to one another (with English subtitles), has cast a number of Latinos, and even uses the actual director for the U.S. Customs service in San Diego, Rudy R. Camacho, to play himself. This is sound. Like Lars von Trier and other followers of the Dogme 95 theory, he uses natural light wherever possible, and artificial illumination when needed to add some clarity to the cheap hotels and crack dens--which differ exquisitely with the upper-middle class suburbs or Cincinnati. The country clubs of San Diego seem a different world from the seedy streets of Tijuana just a couple of miles down the road, and in fact any traveler to San Diego is bound to note the bold contrast between the yacht-filled waters of southern California and the teeming slums of Tijuana just over the fence.

While the principal performers, particularly Benicio del Toro, dramatize their roles expertly, the supporting players are indispensable to the film's authentic feel. Tomas Milian is an almost inscrutable General Salazar, the highest-ranking police official in Tijuana whose desire to crush the cartel of one Juan Obregon seems so excessive that we wonder about his true motivation. Clifton Collins Jr. does an impressive turn as a slightly-built hired assassin for a cartel, called in for a job by a rich woman whose charity work belies her dark nature. As Robert Wakefield, Michael Douglas gives us further reason to believe that a person can change radically during the course of a drama. If a wealthy woman, a pillar of her community, can become an assassin; if a thoroughly honest cop can become debauched against a lifetime of evidence that contradicts the transformation; if a conservative judge can shuck his $1500 suits, symbolically displaying his newly acquired wisdom that outside appearances mask tenebrous interiors--then who knows? Maybe next year Americans will stop freebasing, snorting, drinking, smoking, carousing and gorging!

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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