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Traffic   B

USA Films

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Stephen Gaghan
Cast: Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman, Erika Christensen, Dennis Quaid, Steven Bauer, Jacob Vargas.

Review by Jeremiah Kipp

Cumulatively, the stories form a pattern. The drug wars, with the miscellany of agents and dealers, deaths and deceptions, deals and assaults -- all of it leads to one simple, sad case of a dumb and privileged white girl smoking up poison. If that seems ridiculous, maybe the entire war on drugs is, too.

Our first story belongs to tall, pot bellied Mexican cop Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez, played by the charismatic, funny Benicio Del Toro. With lean, hungry eyes and a stoic (if slightly sardonic) manner, he resembles Gary Cooper. Javier is up against corrupt officials waging the drug war on various powerful cartels. Of course, he has to decide whether to take a bribe. Familiar stuff.

What stands out is the way Soderbergh shoots the tight, poverty stricken streets of Tijuana -- or Javier's cramped, overstuffed apartment -- or the way he walks confidently into a room smoking a cigarette, thick bags under his eyes and laughing through his deadpan voice.

Mostly, it's about Benicio Del Toro, playing a character with almost no backstory and very little dialogue (in two languages, to boot!). He conveys information through his faraway stare or the way he makes flat observations in that smirky, cunning way. Javier resembles the hero from High Noon -- human, but decent.

Other Subplots

Requiem for a Dream: Wealthy white kids born with silver spoons in their mouths cook themselves some heroin and snort coke. It's amazing how often filmmakers get the drug stuff wrong, but Soderbergh knows how to play it. Rule #1 -- Most movies have the filmmakers talking about drugs while they're ingesting them. This is a misnomer.

The preppy brats in Traffic talk in philosophical platitudes, stuff they picked up in their socialist school club or whatnot. They think they're deep, and they almost are. Soderbergh gets their scrubbed clean, Richie Rich looks right without making them look like Calvin Klein models.

This story follows a predictable "Drugs are bad, mm'kay?" thread, but it manages to surpass Requiem For a Dream in only one-tenth of the time. Impressive.

Paul Schrader Country: How ironic. Former judge and newly elected government drug czar Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) has begun his war on drugs while his daughter, Carolina (Erika Christensen, excellent) is getting hooked with the Ivy League crowd. Soderbergh shoots Wakefield's "meet-and-greets" with government drug agents documentary-style, having real agents and politicians discuss the war on drugs with "Michael Douglas," who gamely went along with it.

The scenes where Wakefield accumulates information for his new job are well handled, especially in comparison to his sterile home life. The scenes where he discusses his daughter's suspected drug problem with his wife (Amy Irving) capture the dilemma of parents who experimented with drugs in high school and college themselves.

What a pity the judge's story turns into a Paul Schrader retread. The daughter goes missing and Michael Douglas has to drive through the streets hunting for her. We've seen that movie. It's too bad Traffic takes such a familiar route.

The Rich Man's Wife: When her husband is arrested by the feds, Catherine Zeta-Jones must cough up with three million dollars to pay off hubby's debt or they'll come after her child. She's also pregnant. What's a girl to do?

Interesting idea, the woman trapped in a world she never made. She had no idea her husband was a drug dealer. That makes it a bit of a stretch for her inheritance of his business and attempts to whack a key suspect (Miguel Ferrer) in his case. Zeta-Jones is entirely unconvincing as Lady Macbeth, especially since she's set up as na´ve at the start.

* * *

Soderbergh is emerging as one of the great American filmmakers of our era. His camera will move around within the scene like a news team, placing the audience in the interesting role of detective. It works beautifully in scenes like the chaotic FBI ambush early in the picture which captures the chaos and rush of energy as guns are drawn, waved in every direction and no one knows who's who. A quick insert shot has an agent frantically pulling his badge round his neck so he doesn't get blown away.

Things are not always so fast. Soderbergh favors obscure angles, sometimes shooting in a flat, head-on style. The stagnant scenes of a husband and wife discussing their daughter on drugs is handled in a boring, unwavering wide shot. Compare this with the tension captured in lingering shots of policemen waiting on a stakeout, baking in the sun while trading anecdotes.

Then there's that Steven Soderbergh editing technique, also favored by Lars von Trier, which compresses time through jump-cuts and fast transitions. Again, think of yourself (the viewer) as detective or jury. Soderbergh has edited down his tape to the bare essentials of information you need, so he trims away all those details which bog down traditional action thrillers. He cuts straight to the meat.

Interesting, no? He keeps the scenes rolling fast but lingers on small, almost minuscule details of character: Don Cheadle discussing the cigarette patch his cousin wore; Benicio Del Toro chewing gum and smoking; Michael Douglas and his three glasses of scotch a night.

As familiar as the plot mechanisms are, Steven Soderbergh has been consistently honing a cinematic approach which is perhaps the freshest, most intelligent and original in mainstream American films today.

Review published 01.12.2001.

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