Release Date: December 27th, 2000 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Steven Soderbergh Actors: Benicio Del Toro, Jacob Vargas, Michael Douglas, Luis Guzman, Don Cheadle, Miguel Ferrer, Topher Grace, Erika Christensen, Majandra Delfino, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Albert Finney, D.W. Moffett, James Brolin, Marisol Padilla Sanchez, Amy Irving, Dennis Quaid, Clifton Collins Jr., Peter Riegert, John Slattery, Benjamin Bratt
n Tijuana, Mexico, state police officers Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) wait on a sunny, dusty desert road for a truck carrying illegal drugs. After making an arrest and confiscating the transport, they head back toward town – only to be stopped by General Salazar (Tomas Milian), who takes both the prisoners and the drugs away from the law enforcers. It’s a move that unquestionably harbors secretive, almost certainly illegal motives.
Meanwhile, in Columbus, Ohio, at the State Supreme Court, Judge Robert Hudson Wakefield (Michael Douglas) speaks harshly about marijuana growers, leading to his appointment to head up the President’s “war on drugs.” At the same time, in a twist of irony, his privileged, teenaged daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) experiments with freebased cocaine with her boyfriend Seth (Topher Grace). And in San Diego, California, undercover agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) set up a sting operation to capture notorious coke dealer Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer). After local officials show up, the bust goes haywire, resulting in death and chaos.
Other characters also make an appearance, including socialite Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who enjoys a life of luxury, including eating at country clubs and picking up her son from his golf lessons, all while her husband operates an international drug syndicate. Although these separate stories initially appear unrelated, they all have a couple of things in common. Firstly, it’s apparent that director Steven Soderbergh loves to overuse handheld camerawork. And secondly, each different location (indicated onscreen by intertitles, which switch out rapidly) is color coded with a distinct hue, to aid (symbolically) in recognizing when the focus has shifted back to a previous set of characters and locations. In time, the various narratives start to converge, as “Traffic” demonstrates every angle of the drug trade, from the suppliers to the kingpins to the dealers to the users to the police who try to stop it all. The reach of a single line of drugs and the perceived hopelessness of tackling not only organized crime but also corruption in officials is staggering.
Through the use of an enormous ensemble cast, “Traffic” shows the ways in which so many lives are interconnected by drug trafficking. It’s both a cautionary tale and an artistic illustration of contrasts in methods of fighting crime. Geography is incredibly significant when it comes to enforcing laws, even when it’s the same objectives being sought. And the picture is also a tragedy, as lives are destroyed – some guilty, others less so – in the process of crippling cartels or merely arresting individual addicts, gathering intelligence, or surveilling suspects. Collateral damage is high, funding is limited (for both education and personnel), desperation is unlimited, corruption is rampant (“In Mexico, law enforcement is an entrepreneurial activity,” reveals Ruiz), and progress seems terribly futile. But it’s not all morbid and depressing; antiheroes, no matter how tainted, tend to find some degree of closure or even marginal success. And though it’s overlong (stuffed with details, such as trial testimony, that might enhance the feature for those with patience, but will stretch it into brief tedium for others), it slowly builds to a monumental finale – the kind peppered with references to previous, nearly forgotten actions; bitter ironies; powerful resolutions; and an undeniable sense of satisfaction.
– Mike Massie