Traffic (2000)

TRAFFIC.  Grainy, bleach-y, sepia-tinted film stock.  Twitchy but not 
(yet) shaky camera.  Seedy characters in a seedy situation.  With 
subtitles.  And somewhere out in the middle of the desert.  Could be 
a flashback; could be a flash *forward*, maybe something that happens 
at the *end* of the movie.  Yup, we're in (Steven) Soderbergh land. 
This busy director's newest film is a sprawling, superbly-shot, mul-
ti-character, methodically unfolding, and, well, maybe a bit monoto-
nous drug-war drama.  Set on both sides of the Mexican border (and 
with convenient opposing color schemes for each), the northern half 
of the story introduces Luis Guzman and Don Cheadle as DEA agents 
whose subsequent arrest of a small fish lands a bigger fish, which, 
in turn, wigs-out said fishie's pregnant wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). 
(She was raised poor and appears willing to do *anything* to preserve 
her posh lifestyle...)  Over on the "other side," Benico Del Toro is 
also fighting crime as a well-connected (local) cop and who finds 
himself pulled in increasingly conflicting directions after perform-
ing a favor for Mexico's ruthless, drug war-with-a-capital-"w" waging 
general (Tomas Milian).

Our tour guide on this oft-disturbing trip is Michael Douglas' newly 
appointed Washington "drug czar".  He brainstorms solutions, visits a 
few facilities, and, alas, ultimately discovers that there are more 
useable *words* then there are *actions* in this fight.  He has *his* 
own story, too, involving a drug-using daughter (Erika Christensen) 
and his disbelieving reaction.  (Mom, played by a grim-looking Amy 
Irving, knows the score, however.)  The dad-daughter thread leads to 
an expected sequence of arrest, talking-to, and continued "using." 
(Later and more dire twists involve running away from home.) Smaller 
roles range from Miguel Ferrer's San Diego dealer-turned-snitch to 
Dennis Quaid's damage-controlling lawyer for the newly imprisoned Mr. 
Big.  (Meg Ryan's former hubby is also the film's most creepiest-lo-
oking presence.  Under an apparent amber filter, his skin has a gray 
tan, rendering him resembling a botched clone of George Hamilton.)

Cameos a-plenty, too, including Salma Hayek, Peter Riegert (remember 
him from ANIMAL HOUSE?), and Albert Finney as the US Chief of Staff. 
It may take you a minute to recognize Erin Brockovich's boss, tho,  
with his close-cropped (government-issued) haircut and half bug-eyed 
performance.  Of the bigger names, the most notable presence is Doug-
las' real-life wife Jones.  Speaking with a mysterious European ac-
cent, she's swaggers with a marvelous and increasingly manic fire. 
(And since she was really *was* pregnant during film, she wears the 
extra weight-- got milk?-- so becoming-ly that the female members of 
the audience *might* stone the screen.)

Despite (a.) sprawling story spread among several characters, cities, 
and situations, (b.) a narrative just disjointed enough to prohibit 
bathroom breaks, and (c.) a hearty 140-minute running time, TRAFFIC 
is a compulsively watchable film.  The plot take several unexpected 
turns, nearly every encounter reeks of a palatable unease, and the 
acting is one-hundred percent throughout.  Varied color schemes and 
film stocks boost the visuals ten-fold; handheld cameras and a few 
jump cuts, the director's trademark, add an unshakable realism.  Lots 
of surprise wit, too.  Like the blackly comic reaction of teenagers 
to another kids' overdose (dump him at the emergency room and drive 
off, of course) to the ironic amount of alcohol that Douglas' charac-
ter consumes.  Heck, we even get a little education, the camera vis-
iting the odd support group, juvenile processing center, and, in the 
film's most grim sequence, a Mexican army "torture chamber."  (And  
we get *lectured* as well, though nearly always reacted to on screen 
with another character's sarcasm.)

Alas, the second half of TRAFFIC drags a bit, though certainly with a 
*stylish* monotony.  And despite a few, kick-in-the-pants plot turns, 
like a high-tech smuggling solution.  Or a potential vigilante twist 
for Douglas' character.  Part of the drag, I think, is because the 
story isn't a hand-holder.  Details are left to either the extrapola-
tion or interpretation of the viewer.  (Early on, it's an admittedly 
neat suspense generator, such as when observe the ordering of a "hit" 
but we don't know on whom.)  Another problem is rampant ambiguity-- 
motives, morals, lines of loyalty, etc.-- that makes for a more-neu-
tral, more let's-call-it-a-tie ending.  A necessary neutrality, I 
suppose, but hardly satisfying.  And certainly not *visceral*!  (This 
ain't no PULP FICTION!  Don't even expect an exciting *anti*-climax!) 
Didn't like that last twist with Dennis Quaid's character, either. 
Not needed.  Too much detail in an otherwise lesser-detailed story. 
With Clifton Collins Jr., Topher Grace, D.W. Moffett, Marisol Padilla 
Sanchez, Jacob Vargas, Steven Bauer, and Benjamin Bratt. (Rated "R"/
142 min.)

Grade: B+

Copyright 2000 by Michael J. Legeros
Movie Hell is a trademark of Michael J. Legeros 

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Copyright 2001 by Michael J. Legeros -Movie Hell™ is a trademark of Michael J. Legeros