Traffic

on December 27, 2000 by Jordan Reed
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   In "Traffic," director Steven Soderbergh deftly weaves together four stories depicting the causes and effects of the illegal drug trade: Tijuana cops Javier (Benicio Del Toro) and Manolo (Jacob Vargas) wade their way through corrupt Mexican law enforcement to stop heroin from crossing the border; Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), a Supreme Court Justice appointed to the office of anti-drug czar, juggles his intense, increasingly futile work life and his crumbling relationships with his wife (Amy Irving) and drug-addicted teenage daughter (Erika Christensen); San Diego DEA agents Montel (Don Cheadle) and Ray (Luis Guzman) babysit a dealer (Miguel Ferrer) set to testify against his incarcerated supplier Carlos (Steven Bauer); and Carlos' frantic wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) immerses herself in her husband's once-secret business to keep the family safe from his threatening associates.

   As opposed to Paul Thomas Anderson's multi-storied "Magnolia," "Traffic" doesn't force connections between players for the sake of pseudo-philosophical statement. But, like "Magnolia," the movie's storylines range widely in quality. The Mexico segment--which Soderbergh coats in a jaundiced yellow tint (he serves as cinematographer, as well)--is far and away the strongest, in no small part due to Del Toro's understated performance as what amounts to the only upright policeman in all of Tijuana. It magnifies the flaws of Zeta-Jones' dependent spouse-turned-cavalier-lawbreaker portion of the film.

   While "Traffic" proves difficult to categorize, it's more akin to Soderbergh's somewhat stylized, commercial work of the past few years (excluding "The Limey") than to the esoteric films from his early career, such as his debut, "sex, lies, and videotape," and "King of the Hill." Better than "Erin Brockovich" (a classy but ultimately unambiguous feel-good film) and inferior to the playful but sharp "Out of Sight," "Traffic" ultimately comes off as a message movie, tainted by a dollar-conscious Hollywood optimism that forces its way into the finale of each storyline. While there's nothing wrong with injecting hope into the seemingly fruitless efforts of this country to stem the rampant, destructive flow of dangerous drugs and their shattering repercussions, Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (basing his script on the U.K. miniseries "Traffik") pile on a preponderance of good vibrations, tainting the gritty realism that precedes them. Starring Benicio Del Toro, Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Stephen Gaghan. Produced by Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz and Laura Bickford. A USA release. Drama. Rated R for pervasive drug content, strong language, violence and some sexuality. Running time: 147 min

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