One of the most intriguing parts of Steven Soderbergh's movies is that they are so different in style. There is no quality in his movies that you can attribute to him. He made the independent relationship drama Sex, Lies and Videotape. He got attention for the Julia Roberts vehicle, Erin Brokovich. Now, he has come through with his most ambitious film to date, Traffic.
Traffic follows several interwoven stories. Each one shows the effect of drugs. Taken together, they present a complete picture of the problem. The "war on drugs" has become a meaningless phrase. Catch phrases without action don't produce any results. Each of the characters in this film struggles to make some kind of difference.
Benicio del Toro delivers a skillful performance as Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez a cop in Tijuana. Tijuana cop would strike most of us as an oxy moron but Javier is doing his best in the slums of Mexico to do the right thing. It's strange that the best performance of the film is entirely in Spanish. Soderbergh uses overexposed film during this story to show the grit of Tijuana. It is through the eyes of this character that you see part of the problem that most of us aren't aware of.
Catherine Zeta-Jones is surprising in her role as a woman trying to maintain her family. As Helena Ayala she manages to portray nobility and strength as a mother trying to keep her family together but simultaneously succumbs to the callous corruption of a drug smuggler. While her husband Carlos (Steven Bauer, perpetually cast as a drug dealer) is in jail, she has to fend off his attorney Arnie Metzger (Dennis Quaid).
Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman are also great in this film as cops Montel Gordon and Ray Castro. They are undercover police officers trying to bust drug smugglers. Their nemesis, Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer) plays a drug smuggler who points out the futility of the work of cops. For every smuggler they catch, there's another one waiting to take his place.
Topher Grace plays Seth Abrahams, an eerie, warped version of the suburban character that he plays on "That 70's Show." He's the catalyst for the downfall of Caroline Wakefield (Erika Christensen), the daughter of a politician and straight A student. Her descent is the scariest part of the film. The dealers and the corrupt cops would mean nothing if no one was ever ruined by the drugs they bring in. It's a testament to Steven Soderbergh and newcomer Erika Christensen that this story within the movie doesn't come off as an after school special featuring a poor little rich girl.
Michael Douglas usually plays slick, shallow characters but here he shows depth as Robert Wakefield. In the political world, he tries to understand the problem, he implores his staff to come up with new, interesting, and dynamic ideas, but they all remain silent. He is responsible for overcoming America's drug problem but doesn't even know where to begin with his troubled daughter Caroline.
Traffic is one of the best movies of 2000. The cinematography is beautiful. The performances are masterful. This movie at times has you swimming in a world that has so many alliances, ulterior motives and corruption that you don't know what to expect. It can leave you feeling helpless but at the end of the film, the film is brought down to a personal level. Each character takes on their own struggle in their own way.
-- Robert Penty
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