Traffic (2000) / Drama-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for pervasive drug content, strong language, violence and some sexuality
Running Time: 147 min.

Cast: Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro, Catherine Zeta Jones, Don Cheadle
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay: Stephen Gaghan (based on the miniseries "Traffik" by Simon Moore)

Review published January 13, 2001

It should be abundantly clear after the year 2000 that Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight, The Underneath) is the best director no one's ever heard of working in Hollywood today. Arguably his two films (Traffic and Erin Brockovich) could legitimately claim this year's Best Picture award, and the fact that the two films are so different in style and substance goes to show what a powerhouse talent he is and hopefully the result will be Oscar gold.

The film itself deals with parallel storylines which converge from time to time, all of them dealing with the problems incurred through the trafficking of illegal drugs across the Mexican border into the United States. Michael Douglas (Wonder Boys, A Perfect Murder) plays a judge-turned-Drug-Czar who finds concentrating on the job of ridding the nation of drugs difficult when he can't even clean up his own house of them in the form of his freebasing daughter. Catherine Zeta Jones (High Fidelity, The Haunting) is the wife of a drug kingpin who picks up the reigns of the husband's organization when efforts are made to take him down in court. Benicio del Toro (Snatch, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) is a Mexican cop hired by a Mexican General under the guise of ridding Tijuana from the scourge of a ruthless drug lord, only to find the crew he works for has their own agenda for taking his drug empire down.

Traffic has a deliberate pace but quickly becomes an absorbing tale on the drug traffic situation told from all perspectives, and with great flair paints the reasons why it's important for us to win the "war on drugs" but also an acknowledgement on the futility of it. The scope may be limited to just a few characters but the themes are sweeping: the destruction of the family, corruption of government officials, the destruction of the inner cities, and grimly poses the situation that every drug lord taken down only makes the others waiting in the wings stronger.

Soderbergh's surefire and stylish direction, Stephen Gaghan's (Rules of Engagement, Syriana) knowing adaptation of Simon Moore's miniseries "Traffik", outstanding performances by a cast of quality actors, and Soderbergh's gritty cinematography all come together for a unique and intense study of one of the most important issues facing us today. The documentary feel gives the events credibility without the usual overly tragic qualities which typify drug related movies. Traffic is never overt about its stance, instead allowing us to see many perspectives which all lead to one conclusion: how the use and abuse of drugs not only destroys individuals, but also families, communities, cities, and countries. No one is immune from the repercussions of the problem.

Without question, this is one of the finest films of the year 2000, and perhaps the best film made about the problems of today's drug situation. Testament to a film's power does not come from what you see on the screen, but from how much time is spent thinking about it afterward and Traffic is a movie worthy of serious debate and discussion. The motive is not to entertain, nor is it to preach, but merely to show you the drug situation as it stands and how it is growing perpetually worse. It unflinchingly and unglamorously exposes all its ugly warts and makes us sick at how pervasive and invasive it has grown into every neighborhood and home.

Traffic may make us feel dismal about the future, and it should. It's intent is not for us to shrug and throw up our hands in despair and write off the situation, but serves as a wake-up call. It calls for parents to wake up in their responsibilities to their children, in communities and school's to teach drug education, and in us as a country to persevere through seemingly insurmountable odds to make sure it doesn't hit us directly. Perhaps it is too slow or long for some, but Traffic's intent is not to tie up everything in a neat tidy fun-filled bow, but just the opposite. Its intent is to make is view, and in viewing to think, and in thinking to act. Traffic won't stop drugs from filtering into the country or may not stop a drug-abuser to quit, but it will make us realize that drugs are one of the major problems facing us today, and it's repercussions go hand-in-hand with the others.

And even if it were to have no impact whatsoever, it's still a great movie.

Qwipster's rating:

2002 Vince Leo