Hard-edged, bold, absorbing!
Director Steve Soderbergh is a big showoff.
He pulled off a rare feat when he earned Best Director nominations for not one, but two films -- the Julia Roberts vehicle, Erin Brockovich, and the hard-edged drama, Traffic.
As far as Hollywood potboilers go Erin Brockovich was a fairly entertaining, if somewhat crass, act.
Traffic, on the other hand, is a class act all the way, deservedly netting Soderbergh his first Oscar trophy.
Written by Stephen Gaghan, Traffic is based on the British television miniseries Traffik.
It's an ambitious, serious, but never dull, film tracing three separate storylines filled with characters across the spectrum of the drug trafficking trade -- from dealers and law enforcement agents to drug addicts and the affected family members.
First, we meet a pair of cops from the Mexican border town of Tijuana, Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas), making a drug bust out in the desert.
Soon, they get embroiled in the machinations of a powerful Mexican general (Tomas Milian), hell bent on bringing down the Tijuana drug cartel.
In a decaying and corrupt world, the principled, practical Javier realises that certain compromises have to be made and starts working with people on both sides of the US-Mexico border to do the right thing.
Jousting with the Tijuana cartel for a piece of the lucrative action is the Obregon cartel. Over in the good ol' US, undercover agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) are hot on the trail of the American operatives of the Obregon cartel.
One of them is wealthy businessman Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer) living a life of affluence with his shallow, but innocent, wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones). She learns of her husband's dirty dealings one sunny morning when Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents burst through the front door and whisk Carlos away.
Far away from the border, in Washington DC, Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) has been appointed by the President as the nation's drug czar.
Back in Mexico, in spite of Javier's brotherly protectiveness, his best friend and impressionable partner Manolo treads the wrong path, putting them both in danger.
Meanwhile, the politically naďve Wakefield is about to roll up his sleeves and formulate some arcane policies to rid the world of the pesky drug problem.
But a surprise awaits him at home in Cincinnati where his over-achieving 16-year old daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) has just stumbled upon the joys of cocaine.
Out in the frontlines of drug enforcement, Gordon and Castro are slowly tightening the screws on the key witness against Carlos. A shattered Helena mopes around for a while but finally pulls herself together and embarks on a ruthless quest to do whatever it takes to free her husband.
The film constantly switches between the three stories. Only rarely do the characters from the different stories cross paths. At no point is the film disjointed or lose focus.
Soderbergh, who is at the top of his game, here makes some bold choices. For instance, at the risk of alienating audiences, he decides to tell the Mexican side of the story entirely in Spanish with English subtitles.
It's a wonderful choice because we hear the Mexicans speak in the natural rhythms of their language rather than in cheesy Spanish-accented English.
Then, Soderbergh, who also served as the cinematographer (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews), uses different colours and textures for all three stories, giving each of them a distinct visual feel.
He also manages to extract superb performances from the entire ensemble cast. Benicio Del Toro rightfully won an Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his haunting performance as the idealistic Javier who has long given up on looking at the world in black and white. As the troubled, moral anchor of Traffic, he should feel slightly miffed at having been passed over in the Best Actor category.
Cheadle and Guzman as the undercover agents have potent chemistry between them. Sitting for long hours in surveillance vans, they throw verbal riffs at each other and provide the film's comic relief.
Michael Douglas has made a career out of being tormented by the women in his life. In Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and Disclosure, sexy femme fatales have had him at his wit's end. That illustrious tradition continues here. A powerful and respected man, he is all at sea when it comes to dealing with the downward spiral of the rebellious Caroline.
There is a great sequence where Caroline's boyfriend (newcomer Topher Grace) lashes out at Douglas on the government's inane drug policies. For a Hollywood superstar like Douglas to allow himself to be completely overshadowed in a scene by an unknown actor shows a refreshing lack of ego.
Traffic doesn't manage to entirely steer clear of the cliches, though. The drug czar's only daughter is, of course, the biggest crack whore in town.
And the rookie mistakes made by experienced undercover agents in protecting a key witness stretch credibility in a film that otherwise realistically portrays the endemic drug problem.
Also the fact that the war on drugs being waged by the US government is an exercise in futility will come as a revelation only to the most naďve.
But Traffic doesn't storm the bully pulpit nor does it get preachy or judgemental.
How do you wage a war against a problem that is rooted in the simple economics of supply and demand, not good and evil?
By all that is left unsaid and unresolved, Soderbergh and Gaghan show that there is no magic bullet. An absorbing drama set on a sprawling scale, Traffic enlightens and entertains.
That makes it a must-see.
Cast: Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Luis Guzmán, Dennis Quaid
Catherine Zeta-Jones, Amy Irving, Erika Christensen, Clifton Collins Jr, Jacob Vargas, Marisol Padilla Sánchez, Miguel Ferrer, Steven Bauer, Tomas Milian, Topher Grace
Filmmakers: Steven Soderbergh, Stephen Gaghan
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