Some of today's most interesting directors are making their mark
on 2000 just before the calendar runs out.
Steven Soderbergh has already graced the year with "Erin
Brockovich," the most politically alert crowd-pleaser in recent
memory. Now he's back with Traffic, a more abrasive commentary on
ills of contemporary life. The new picture will probably draw
smaller audiences, but may figure even more prominently in the
upcoming Academy Awards race, given its impressive ensemble cast
and the imaginative visual style it uses to explore its complex
subject from a variety of perspectives.
That subject is drugs - or more precisely, the so-called war on
drugs that the United States government has been waging for many a
long and controversial year. Although its highly dramatic
screenplay is based on a British television series, "Traffic"
amounts to a 140-minute commentary on American efforts to stem the
tide of illicit drugs through a wide assortment of varyingly
effective means, from infiltration of the narcotics underworld to
treatment of drug-dependent individuals.
This doesn't mean "Traffic" is an exercise in punditry. Quite the
opposite, it's one of the year's most suspenseful, gripping, and
sometimes disturbing films. It begins near the Mexican border, where
a Mexican cop (Benicio Del Toro) and his close partner (Jacob
Vargas) are working under a military commander (Tomas Milian) whose
methods are as ruthless as the enemy he wants to conquer.
The action soon switches to the United States, where a Midwestern
judge (Michael Douglas) has been chosen as federal drug czar - a
job he's proud to take, even though it consumes so much time that
it hampers his ability to stay close with family members, one of
whom (Erika Christensen) is a teenager with a hankering for
On the West Coast, meanwhile, two officers on the drug beat (Luis
Guzman, Don Cheadle) monitor the life of a wealthy woman (Catherine
Zeta-Jones) whose incarcerated husband (Steven Bauer) has become a
pawn in a set of dangerous intrigues.
These are only some of the characters in Soderbergh's web of
plots and subplots, which run on parallel but interrelated tracks
throughout the movie.
Some are more compelling than others, and portions of the action
seem a bit confused, as if a too-long running time had caused
necessary story material to remain on the cutting-room floor.
Sentimentality creeps in a little, as well. But the tension rarely
lets up, and the film's thoughtfulness is a welcome relief from the
season's general run of fluff and fantasy.
And then there's the acting, much of which ranks with the best
we've seen all year. …