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