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
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
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