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Traffic
2000 - R - 140 Mins.
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Producer: Edward Zwick, Laura Bickford, Marshall Herskovitz
Written By: Stephen Gaghan
Starring: Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Quaid, Catherine Zeta-Jones
Review by: David Trier
   
Finally a movie that confirms my long-held belief that if everyone in government had a crackhead daughter, the world would be a better place. In this monster of a project Steven Soderbergh tackles the issue of the drug war, its reality and mythology, with three stories, which are more connected than they know.

This is the kind of film that relies heavily on audience discovery so I don't want to give away too much. One story: Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) has been appointed the U.S.'s new drug czar (replacing a retiring James Brolin). As he patiently learns from congressmen and the like about how the drug war works, his own daughter (Erika Christensen) has sex for freebase. Another story: Agents Castro (Luis Guzman) and Gordon (Don Cheadle) bust Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer) to turn him informant against drug trafficker Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer). This proves unfortunate for Ayala's uninformed wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and family lawyer Arnie Metzger (Dennis Quaid). Another story: Good natured Tijuana cops Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) are hired by General Salazar (Tomas Milian), the Mexican equivalent of drug czar, to capture assasin Francisco Flores (Clifton Collins Jr.). But their loyalty is tested when it can be confusing who you're really working for and why. All three stories are deeply intertwined even though Douglas, Zeta-Jones, and del Toro never meet.

This is just a very well executed film. First and foremost, its cast is exceptional. Even the big name stars play it straight and real. Michael Douglas, finally starring in a film that doesn't involve younger women sexually exploiting him, nails a solid and convincing portrayal of both a politician and a human being (hehe). Catherine Zeta-Jones, in her first role that requires acting, is excellent, strong and subtle in pleasantly surprising ways. Bravo to Benicio del Toro, a favorite for silly characters, here he demands attention and respect for his depth of character and honesty of performance. He's already won an NYFCC award for best supporting male and I'm sure there will be more to come. Don Cheadle, who was barely mediocre in the unforgivable Mission to Mars, is straightforward and real. But the biggest star of Traffic is its ensemble of long-deserved supporting actors, all personal favorites of mine. Miguel Ferrer, who hasn't really had a role worthy of his talents since playing Bob Morton in Robocop, is blessed with the best monologue of the film. Clifton Collins Jr., who was excellent in Tigerland, offers a sickly sensitivity to his assassin character. Jacob Vargas, who was the cute kid learning how to read in The Principal, offers a believable character. Luis Guzman, who's been in countless films and television shows without much credit, is just fantastic in his role. Topher Grace (Foreman on That 70s Show) plays Seth, the yuppie boyfriend of Douglas's daughter. He's a gifted comic actor, and although he's offered some comic moments, his dramatic performance stands out proudly. He will hopefully continue to make wise decisions in his transition from television to film. Amy Irving and Erika Christensen are both very good as Douglas's wife and daughter.

The only problems I found with the movie are ones that are inevitable with an issue this complicated. The movie is complicated and although Soderbergh offers us cinematic tools to guide us, it is sometimes hard to follow. Spending time trying to figure out what just happened, you can miss what's happening currently. There are a few small subplots that could be considered unnecessary in a movie made up of subplots. Ayala's family friend, although well-played by Dennis Quaid, has too small a part to warrant the complication of his crush on Ayala's wife. And her attempt to take over her husband's business is confusing and a little too quick. On the other hand, it's a cool scene and Benjamin Bratt has an amusing cameo. Steven Bauer, not a bad actor but not a particularly demanding one either, is not well cast as Carlos Ayala, a small but essentially important character.

What's spectacular about this movie is that it doesn't cram any misinformed preaching down your throat. It shows us a realistic portrait of several different angles on the war on drugs. It's a painting more than it is a beginning-middle-end traditional story. As I write this, I'm desperately trying to just review the movie and not offer my thoughts on this sick nightmare prohibition money-making war against people, but... oh man. Anyway, it doesn't offer any naive solutions to a situation best solved by traveling back in time and not creating it. Only we the audience know how connected the three stories really are and only we are afforded the big picture. The writing is far from expository. The dialogue is slick and engaging without losing its deeply entrenched reality, making it even easier for a talented cast to deliver. And with 135 speaking parts and 8 cities, Traffic is a fantastic feat.
 
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

 
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