Wednesday 16 June 2021

Movie Review: Traffic (2000)

A multi-story crime epic, Traffic is an unblinking look at the illegal drug business on both sides of the US-Mexico border. Law enforcement officials, traffickers, addicts, and their families intermingle in overlapping hard-hitting narratives.

In the US, Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) of Ohio is appointed as the President's new drug czar, leading the government's "war on drugs". Wakefield is unaware his high achieving 16-year-old daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) and her friends are dabbling in hard drugs. When Caroline's addiction becomes obvious, Robert's work and private lives collide and his relationship with wife Barbara (Amy Irving) is strained.

In Mexico, Tijuana police officer Javier Rodriguez (Benicio del Toro) and his partner Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) are in the middle of a turf war between two drug cartels. Javier is recruited by the powerful General Salazar (Tomas Milian) to help federal anti-drug efforts. On Salazar's instructions, Rodriguez arrests cartel assassin Flores (Clifton Collins, Jr.) who is then tortured for information. Wakefield seeks allies in Mexico and identifies Salazar as a potential force for good.

In San Diego, police officers Montel (Don Cheadle) and Castro (Luis Guzmán) arrest businessman Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer), who uses storefronts as cover for a drug distribution network. In return for leniency Ruiz identifies the wealthy Carlos Ayala (Stephen Bauer) as the powerful representative for one of the Tijuana cartels. Ayala is promptly arrested, stunning his pregnant wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who is living the high-society life oblivious to her husband's real business. Montel and Castro have to keep Ruiz alive long enough to testify, while Helena gets only slimy support from Ayala's lawyer Arnie (Dennis Quaid) and turns to the assassin Flores for more potent help.

Featuring an ensemble cast, brisk pacing and enough content to easily justify the 147 minutes of running time, Traffic delves into the high-profit, high-risk, high-damage drugs business from multiple perspectives. Written by Stephen Gaghan and directed by Steven Soderbergh, the core message promotes pragmatism about the depth of the problem and the inefficacy of simplistic solutions. The loosely connected stories shine the light on unlimited supply, insatiable demand and unimaginable profits fuelling a business larger than most governments. Not surprisingly, slogans, blunt initiatives and even good intentions fold under the pressure of corruption, addiction and violence.

Traffic is about an underworld filled with ruthless behaviour, but avoids any traditional action scenes. Gaghan and Soderbergh maintain focus on individuals, personalizing the dilemmas and boiling down a gargantuan industry to a human scale. From Ayala's smug confidence that he is untouchable, to young Caroline throwing away her future in search of the next hit, passing through Rodriguez realizing everything right is wrong, the futility of declaring war on a health crisis made worse by bad laws is laid bare.

As the drama jumps between various stories, Soderbergh (also the cinematographer) uses colour to signal locales. The scenes in Mexico start with an overexposed palette of reds and yellows, while Wakefield's journey of learning about his daughter is bathed in deep blues. Helena's scenes resemble a glossy magazine representing unearned wealth and privilege.

Some narrative weaknesses creep in at the edges. Judge Wakefield becomes an unlikely private investigator, taking to the scuzzy parts of town and barging through doors to try and save his daughter. Helena's transformation from clueless wife to shrewd operator is also remarkably swift.

But with the stellar cast in top form, Soderbergh navigates towards faint optimism within individual moments of hope. One victim is at least temporarily saved and some kids get to play a ball game. In a massive sea of despair, small victories have to matter.

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