'Traffic' Spins Gripping Tales of the Drug Wars
David Sterritt writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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 narcotics.
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. …