Caught In The Headlights
Characters in careening storylines become roadkill in Steven Soderbergh's Traffic.
Thursday, January 11, 2001
Clearly, director Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies and videotape, Out of Sight, The Limey) cares more about creating films that interest him than about mainstream adulation. Even so, such laurels continue to come to him, bolstered by an unending tide of critical kudos. His first film of 2000, Erin Brockovich, seems destined for at least one Academy Award nomination, and his second film of last year, Traffic, was far and away the best film of the year--and perhaps of the past decade as well.
At its core, Traffic is a sober-minded look at the drug trade, from an all-inclusive angle that takes on both the War on Drugs'' policymakers in our nation''s capital to the dealers, users, cops and DEA agents on the streets, and everyone in between. Instead of taking the easy way out, with a blanket statement about the inherent evils the international drug market creates, Soderbergh (working from a script by Rules of Engagement''s Stephen Gaghan) tackles virtually every angle of the hellish business of drugs and drug control.
The film--an ensemble work in the strictest sense of the phrase--intertwines three distinct storylines. As the film opens, we meet Mexican cops Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) who intercept an airborne shipment of cocaine in the midst of the Mexican desert, only to have their haul promptly taken from them by the heavily armed General Salazar (Tomas Milian) of the Mexican Army.
On the other side of the border, there''s newly appointed U.S. Drug Czar Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), who arrives at his Washington position and his Georgetown home with a righteous fire in the belly and a keen, probing intellect. One thing he''s overlooked, however, is his daughter Caroline''s (Erika Christensen) rich-kid, recreational drug use. She and her prep-school buddies lounge around daddy''s manse and kill time by freebasing coke and whining about the vagaries of being young, rich, and white in America.
In the film''s third narrative skein are DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman), who nail drug kingpin Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer) and leave his hapless, unknowing wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) suddenly adrift in a hell of unpayable mortgages and general familial destruction. All three of these complex storylines are interwoven so skillfully that the whole nasty affair plays out like a modern-day Dickens novel--if A Tale of Two Cities had featured shoot-outs and teenage whoring.
In such a massive, thoroughly impressive cast as this one, it''s difficult to single out a single actor as The One, but Benicio Del Toro''s scruffy Tijuana cop is, frankly, a revelation. Del Toro has shone before--his Dr. Gonzo in Terry Gilliam''s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was an impressively surreal feat--but his jaw-droppingly smooth portrayal of Javier Rodriguez, a generally decent sort of man caught up in a web of officially sanctioned bullshit so sublime and massive that its very existence boggles the mind, is amazing. His is the sort of performance that Best Actor awards are made for.
What''s even more amazing is the fact that Soderbergh has managed to accomplish in one film what policymakers on both sides of the Drug War fence have been trying to do for decades. He brings the war back home and lets us view its ravages from seemingly every angle at once.
Traffic... (* * * * )Rated: R, 147 min.
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: James Brolin, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Miguel Ferrer, Albert Finney, Dennis Quaid, Amy Irving, Steven Bauer, Luis Guzman, Don Cheadle, Tomas Milian, Erika Christensen, Michael Douglas, Benjamin Bratt, Benicio Del Toro, Jacob Vargas
Where: Northridge Cinema, State Theater
When: See Movie Times