Traffic

Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring (alphabetically): Don Cheadle, Erika Christensen, Benicio Del Toro, Michael Douglas, Miguel Ferrer, Topher Grace, Luis Guzmán, Amy Irving, Dennis Quaid, Catherine Zeta-Jones.
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive drug content, strong language, violence and some sexuality.

Review by Matt Heffernan <matt@filmhead.com>
January 11, 2001

It took all of last year -- and then another week -- for Hollywood to release a film as good as Traffic. The only films from 2000 that I could consider "great" were all independent and foreign films -- which is really quite exceptional, even for a stickler like me. Generally, the major studios put out at least a few great films every year, complete with big budgets and major stars, but it just didn't seem to happen last year. Because of some special engagements, Traffic counts as a 2000 film, even though most of the country (including this humble internet critic) didn't see it until its release last weekend. Anyway, we've had enough technicalities, so let's move on to why this film is so special.

The action in Traffic takes place in several inter-related threads following different sets of characters. In Washington, Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) has been appointed Drug Czar after years of crusading against illegal drug trafficking in the courts. His daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen), is a straight-A student back in Illinois, but she is secretly hanging out with a crowd that has introduced her to cocaine, to which she is quickly becoming addicted.

While Wakefield has a war on drugs to fight in his own home, battles are waged elsewhere. In San Diego, DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzmán) are trying to bring down a cartel led by Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer). They arrest one of his sub-bosses, Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer), and try to keep him alive long enough to testify against Ayala. That task isn't easy, as Ayala's pregnant wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is plotting with her lawyer (Dennis Quaid) to have Ruiz killed.

Right across the border in Mexico, state policeman Javier Rodríguez Rodríguez (Benicio Del Toro) is trying to bring down the same organization, but his methods are a little different from the DEA's. He has no problem dragging suspects across the border or taking a few bribes here and there. For him and many of his fellow officers, the war on drugs is one big business opportunity.

That's the real theme of the film: the futility of this war that's been waged over the last few decades. The drugs still make it to the customers, and there will always be somebody to deliver them, no matter how many cartels are brought down. Traffic manages to deal with this issue with a level of intelligence that is rarely seen in Hollywood films today. In that sense, it is almost old-fashioned, as if it came out in 1974, back when the studios weren't afraid of making audiences think.

Director Steven Soderbergh already had a banner year with the massive success of Erin Brockovich, thanks to a starring turn by Julia Roberts' cleavage. This film, however, shows the true scope of his talent, masterfully weaving a complex story into two and a half hours of compelling entertainment. He even chose to give wildly different looks to different locales in the film, contrasting the bright pastels of San Diego with the grainy yellows of Tijuana. It was as if he made three or four films and somehow found a way to make them work together.

This combination of visual artistry and thematic integrity has been missing from most American films over the last year, which makes Traffic an excellent end to it, even if it has come out at the beginning of another. Or something like that -- this time of year can be really confusing. At least there are finally some decent films to see.


For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Traffic (2000)

Here's some merchandise for sale at Amazon.com
Traffic (2000) -- VHS
Traffic (2000) -- DVD
Traffic: The Shooting Script, by Stephen Gaghan -- Paperback
Traffic: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack -- Compact Disc


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Review © 2001 Matt Heffernan