A conservative judge is appointed by the President to spearhead America's escalating war against drugs, only to discover that his teenage daughter is a crack addict. Two DEA agents protect an informant. A jailed drug baron's wife attempts to carry on the family business.
An intertwined drama about the United States' war on drugs, seen through the eyes of a once conservative judge, now newly-appointed drug czar, his crack-addicted daughter, two DEA agents, a jailed drug kingpin's wife, and a Mexican cop who begins to question his boss's motives.
A dazzlingly complex film, `Traffic' takes a hard, unflinching look at the so-called `war on drugs' that is perfectly clear and uncompromising. Director Steven Soderbergh takes the various viewpoints of the drug culture -- the users, the dealers, the police, and the politicians -- and weaves their differing stories together into a single story that is both deep in its ideas but very simple to understand. In terms of story, direction, and characters, `Traffic' is easily Soderbergh's best film to date, and one of the best films made in recent years, period.
`Traffic' takes a look at the world of drugs through the stories and lives of different characters. Some are loosely connected to one another; some are not. There is the story of Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro), a Mexican policeman struggling to keep his distance from the corruption that seems to follow him everywhere; there is the story of Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) and Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle), two DEA agents trying to turn the low-level drug dealer Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer) against his drug cartel boss; there's the story of Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the unsuspecting wife of the drug cartel boss who suddenly learns who her husband really is and what he does for a living; and then there's the new head of the DEA, Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), a man so wrapped up in his mission to stop the war on drug, he fails to notice that his own daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is becoming addicted to crack. Much like in the real world, the events of each story directly or indirectly affect the events of the others, leaving all the characters to consider their roles in the drug culture . . . and what, if anything, they can do to change those roles.
In terms of story, `Traffic' is absolutely brilliant. I'm still amazed that the film could cover so many plotlines and dozens of characters so effortlessly. Each story -- whether it's Helena assuming the role of her drug-dealing husband, or Robert canceling DEA meetings so he can deal with his drug-addicted daughter -- is powerful and brutally honest. `Traffic' isn't afraid to look at tough or uncomfortable issues. `Traffic', somewhat surprisingly, never preaches, either -- while it's safe to say that the message of the film is essentially anti-drug, it never comes out and outright says that message. A lesser film would've had some grandiose speech imbedded somewhere in the film denouncing the use of drugs -- not `Traffic'. It's wise enough to let the viewer take what messages they want from the film, without ever preaching. (A minor quibble -- did Michael Douglas' character really have to be the new drug czar of the United States? The fact that he was the top law enforcement drug official in the U.S., and that his daughter was addicted to drug . . . well, it seemed a little too far-fetched, and a little too movie-like. If Mr. Douglas had been playing ONE of the top drug officials in the federal government, instead of THE top official, I would've found his character to be infinitely more believable.)
Soderbergh's also at the top of his game with his direction of `Traffic'. The film is virtually filmed entirely with hand-held camera, giving each and every scene an up-close-and-personal feel. There's also a distinct lack of background music, which lets the viewer feel like they're eavesdropping on real-life scenes, and not just watching a movie. These techniques make for a very personal, intense experience. Soderbergh also uses a technique he's used in some of his other films (Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich) -- certain scenes are filtered a specific color, to heighten a mood or a sense of awareness of what's about to happen. The scenes in Mexico featuring the Mexican detective Javier, for example, are all filmed in a very bright, almost disorienting yellow. It's a technique that can be irritating at times, but for the most part, it serves a bold purpose that truly adds to the film.
As for the characters, and the acting . . . jeez, `Traffic' is without a doubt one of the best-cast films of all time. I mean it. There are no weak links, no poorly written characters, and no badly played characters. Each and every character adds something significant to the story in `Traffic', and each and every actor is outstanding. Kudos must go to possibly one of the best ensemble casts of all time. Three actors in particular stand out, though -- Benicio Del Toro (who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance), Don Cheadle (who was actually slightly better than the brilliant performance of Mr. Del Toro, IMHO), and Catherine Zeta-Jones. I'm normally loathe to use the word `flawless' when describing a film, but the casting of `Traffic' was indeed flawless.
`Traffic', with its unflinching look at drug use in America today, can be uncomfortable at times to watch. It certainly can't be termed a `happy' or a `feel-good' film. That doesn't change the fact that it is an amazing, thought-provoking, powerful film -- and without a doubt the best film released in the year 2000. I can't recommend this film enough. Grade: A
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