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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

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Review by Steve Rhodes
3 stars out of 4

TRAFFIC, by director and cinematographer Steven Soderbergh (ERIN BROCKOVICH and OUT OF SIGHT), is an intriguing and cautionary tale of human duality (good/evil, honest/corrupt, confident/desperate, powerful/hopeless, rich/poor, etc.) set against the background of drug trafficking and usage.

Using the canonical metaphor of a "war" against drugs, the script by Stephen Gaghan (RULES OF ENGAGEMENT) is loosely based on Simon Moore's television miniseries, "Traffik," which was shown many years back on PBS. (For the record, I found the movie similar in tone and quality to the miniseries, even if the two tell different stories.) Unlike traditional warfare, the drug war has no real beginning or ending and few publicized heroes. If there is an analogy to be made, the drug war is like the endless trench battles in World War I.

The ambitious TRAFFIC is constructed of 3 parallel and overlapping stories. The highest profile one concerns Ohio Supreme Court Justice Robert Lewis (Michael Douglas), his wife, Barbara (Amy Irving), and their 16-year-old daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen). This is a dysfunctional family with their own internecine warfare. Robert is bored. Barbara is in denial. And Caroline is generally stoned from freebasing, snorting and shooting up with her wealthy friends and with her low-rent drug dealers. "I'm really angry," Caroline (Erika Christensen) tells her AA group. "I'm angry about a lot of stuff. I'm just not sure what."

Incongruously, Robert is about to become the nation's next drug czar. After learning of his daughter's habit, he approaches his upcoming job with a vengeance, but his call for "out of the box" thinking from his lieutenants generates dead silence. The root cause of the unlimited demand for drugs is probably best summarized by one of Caroline's fellow AA members who calls alcoholism and drug addiction, "allergies of the body and obsessions of the mind."

In San Diego, undercover DEA agents Monty Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman), are trying to trap mid-level trafficker Eddie Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer). "In Mexico, law enforcement is an entrepreneurial activity," Eddie brags about how easy it is to pay off those on the other side of the border. He is a cynic who likes to taunt the police. "Your life is pointless," Eddie reasons with Monty, since incarcerating some drug dealers just means that someone else will sell users the drugs that they want to get high. Eddie views drugs as inevitable, so why shouldn't he be the one to prosper from their sale? Steven Bauer plays Eddie's boss, Carlos Ayala, and Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Carlos's pregnant wife, Helena. Helena's all too rapid arc from good to bad is one of the story's few disappointments.

In Mexico, low-level policeman Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro), who makes the princely sum of $316 a month, and his partner, Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas), go to work for Mexico's chief drug official, General Salazar (Tomas Milian). Like their American counterparts, they are trying to work their way up the food chain to the top members of their nation's distribution network, in their case, the Tijuana cartel. General Salazar's men, however, have more powerful tools of their trade, with torture and murder being two of their more dramatic ones.

The film's large cast, which also includes Albert Finney, Salma Hayek, Dennis Quaid and Peter Riegert, are well utilized. One almost feels sorry for those actors whom Soderbergh didn't invite to be in his film.

The movie is surprisingly slow paced for its subject matter and in need of another editing pass to trim off some of the fat. The story itself is fascinating with the notable exception of the unconvincing action of one character towards the end, which plays like a cheap bit of moralizing by the screenwriter.

All of the above notwithstanding, what the viewers are most likely to remember a year later is the film's imaginative cinematography. Mexico is filmed in warm yellows and browns, reflecting the land's heat and poverty. A cool blue, like blue suits reflected off of marble columns, is used for the seats of power in government. And bright primary, like from an expensive decorating magazine, are used for the settings of the wealthy. Even before the characters speak, Soderbergh's color scheme alone has already told us much about them.

TRAFFIC runs too long at 2:27. It is rated R for pervasive drug content, strong language, violence and some sexuality and would be acceptable for older teenagers.

Copyright 2000 Steve Rhodes

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