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"TRAFFIC"
(2000) (Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: Various people in both the U.S. and Mexico attempt to deal with the repercussions that drugs, and the war on them, have on their lives.
PLOT:
Javier Rodriguez (BENICIO DEL TORO) and his partner Manolo Sanchez (JACOB VARGAS) are Tijuana State cops who find themselves tempted and/or coerced within a police department where drugs, drug trafficking and related money have corrupted others. They eventually find themselves somewhat reluctantly working for General Arturo Salazar (TOMAS MILIAN), Mexico's apparent number one drug fighter who wants them to shut down the Tijuana drug cartel, first by capturing assassin Francisco Flores (CLIFTON COLLINS JR.).

Robert Wakefield (MICHAEL DOUGLAS) is a conservative Ohio State Supreme Court Judge who's just been appointed by the President as the nation's new drug czar. While he has his hands full collecting information about the post, the state of the war on drugs and establishing collaborative efforts with Mexico to stem the drug trade, he and his wife, Barbara (AMY IRVING), must contend with their 16-year-old daughter, Caroline (ERIKA CHRISTENSEN). Although she's smart and a scholastic overachiever, she's also a drug addict and enjoys getting high with her friends including Bowman (COREY SPEARS), Vanessa (MAJANDRA DELFINO) and boyfriend Seth Abrahms (TOPHER GRACE).

Montel Gordon (DON CHEADLE) and Ray Castro (LUIZ GUZMAN) are undercover DEA agents hoping to crack an infamous drug cartel led by Juan Obregon (BENJAMIN BRATT). Their busting of middle-rung drug trafficker, Eduardo Ruiz (MIGUEL FERRER), leads to the arrest of Carlos Ayala (STEVEN BAUER) who turns out to be a drug baron and not the upstanding business and family man he appears to be.

That all comes as a shock to his pregnant wife, Helena (CATHERINE ZETA-JONES), who consults with attorney Arnie Metzger (DENNIS QUAID) while trying to figure out how to deal with such unexpected revelations as well as threats from the cartel and being trailed by the DEA. As the presence of drugs and the war on them rages on, those various people attempt to confront the related issues that directly affect them.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
If one were to look at the title of director Steven Soderbergh's latest film, "Traffic," and see the galaxy of stars appearing in it but otherwise know next to nothing about it, they might get the wrong impression regarding its subject matter.

Due to its one-word label, some might think it's an action-thriller like "Speed" or perhaps an Irwin Allen-inspired disaster flick located amidst the L.A. freeway system. Then again, a traffic jam started star Michael Douglas' film, "Falling Down," and with his real life wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, pregnant both in reality and the film, it could also be a comedy of errors of him trying to get her to the hospital via gridlocked streets.

Soderbergh has a different sort of traffic in mind, however, with this follow-up to "Erin Brockovich" that concerns the various aspects, implications and consequences of drug trafficking. Based on Simon Moore's miniseries, "Traffik," that aired on Britain's Channel 4 Television and tracked a drug route from Pakistan through Europe to the U.K., the film is a multilayered and impressive, dramatic epic.

Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours, the story - adapted by Stephen Gaghan ("Rules of Engagement") - consists of three thematically connected but otherwise mostly independent storylines related to drugs and/or drug use. While some may be disappointed that Soderbergh ("The Limey," "Out of Sight") doesn't tie them together into a tidy and pat ending that's often typical of Hollywood, others will enjoy the director's bucking of the system.

Either way, it's a testament to the filmmakers that they not only manage to keep what could have been an unwieldy experience both tight and interesting - the three storylines include around ten major characters and reportedly more than 110 speaking parts - but also make the overall film a riveting experience with an ever-growing sense of momentum despite jumping back and forth among the stories.

Shooting the three storylines in a "you are there/evening news" handheld fashion (coupled with news-like onscreen location titles), Soderbergh (who also served as the cinematographer under the alias "Peter Andrews") gives the film a raw and edgy feel but doesn't go so far into the Dogma 95 conventions so as to make the effect distracting. The same holds true for his decision to shoot those distinctive storylines in visually disparate color palettes, such as those in Mexico having the look of over-saturated sepia while the ones dealing with Michael Douglas' character are bathed in a cool blue tint.

Soderbergh obviously had his reasons for doing so, with the simplest probably being to make it easier for viewers to distinguish the stories and the more complex involving contrasting cultural and class symbolism. Fortunately, such effects probably won't bother many viewers, and if they do, the story is so engrossing that they'll soon forget about them.

While nothing in the film is particularly new in concept or execution - we've seen these types of characters and stories before - the way in which the film unfolds and particularly the outstanding performances from the large ensemble cast make it seem fresh and original. Among those delivering the latter is the always reliable Michael Douglas ("Wonder Boys," "A Perfect Murder") as the drug czar who finds that the battlefield line over drugs has crossed over into his backyard, while relative newcomer Erika Christensen ("Leave it to Beaver") is quite good and, more importantly, perfectly credible as his addicted teenage daughter.

Although Catherine Zeta-Jones ("Entrapment," "The Mask of Zorro") doesn't appear in any scenes with hubby Douglas, she delivers a strong performance as a wife pushed to desperate measures to protect her family. Don Cheadle ("The Family Man," "Mission to Mars") and Luis Guzman ("The Limey," "Boogie Nights") are present as undercover DEA agents trailing her and inject some much needed, but only occasional comic relief into the proceedings.

The best performance by far, however, comes from Benicio Del Toro ("The Way of the Gun," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas") as a Mexican cop who finds himself caught up in a system that's more corrupt than he is. While performers have their various strengths in practicing their craft, Del Toro's is his ability to convey so much through so little such as certain expressions and the way he holds his body. It's a subtle gift, but it suits and benefits both him and the film.

Supporting performances from the likes of Dennis Quaid ("Frequency," "Any Given Sunday"), Miguel Ferrer ("Robocop," "Revenge"), Tomas Milian ("The Yards," "Havana"), Amy Irving ("Bossa Nova," "Yentl") and others are all solid and none of the performers miss a beat in their roles.

While Soderbergh may stretch reality a few times for dramatic effect, he fortunately doesn't allow the film to get too preachy in its message. Instead, he mostly allows the viewer to come to their own conclusions about what they're seeing. In this instance, that's a completely absorbing and overall well-made piece of filmmaking. Certain to be bestowed with various award nominations, "Traffic" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.




Reviewed December 4, 2000 / Posted January 5, 2001


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