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USA 2000
Directed by
Steven Soderbergh
147 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars


Synopsis: Mexican policeman Javier Rodriguez (Benicio del Toro) with his friend and colleague Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) work the Mexican/US border in the fight against drug running. Meanwhile Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is named the US President's new anti-drug generalissimo. At the same time his teenage daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is on her own drugs campaign. And in San Diego, undercover agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) are working on a case to bust drug importer Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer) whose wife Helena (Catherine Zeta Jones) is no Snow White.

One of the problems with exultant publicity is that it can produce inflated expectations and corollary disappointments. This is the case with Traffic which, despite an intelligently different approach, is in essence a conventional corruption-in-high places crime thriller. Equally, although it maintains the tension appropriate to a tale of good versus evil, anyone looking for a straightforward story with action-oriented set-pieces will find this less-than-satisfying. In reality it deserves to better regarded and I suspect time will be the final arbiter.

Director Soderbergh has taken a complex,issue-oriented narrative and given it sympathetic treatment. Although the title suggests this is an action film involving cars, it is in fact a thoughtful thriller which, in following its narrative explores the permutations of drug-taking in America, the generation gap, the divide between rich and poor, morality and cultural formation and so on, in a way which is both unobtrusive and perceptive. Following that narrative is quite a task, however Somewhat like Guy Ritchie's films, multiple story lines intersect and develop simultaneously, each being given a short run before the film switches to another. The effect is to suggest an oncoming crisis, as if we are watching now one, now another, train, heading for a head on-collision. The resulting tension keeps one well-baited, although arguably the final emphasis on the redemptive is somewhat like having the trains switch tracks at the last minute and disappear into the landscape. A deflationary tactic which however morally desirable is somewhat inconsistent with what had gone before. (In this, it adopts the opposite strategy to another current film dealing with contemporary drug-taking Requiem For A Dream)

Adding to this edgy quality, Soderbergh makes the images, particularly those set in Mexico, grainy and leached of colour, or simulates hand-held camera effects, features which are supposed to suggest the authenticity of the story we see. Generally speaking, they achieve this very well, only the presence of A list actors like Michael Douglas tending to remind us that this is "just a story".

Not that Douglas is not good as, he walks through his usual role of the well-to-do career-driven, white collar corporatised professional. He is. And he is ably abetted by the entire cast, whether Dennis Quaid as the sleazy lawyer, Catherine Zeta-Jones as the calculating spouse, the charismatic Benicio Del Toro as the Mexican cop. or Erika Christensen as the lost teenager. Characterisations are strong and the mixture of different cultures and sub-cultures skilfully handled.

Traffic is a thoughtful, well-made film and one which may prove to be one of the stand-out efforts of the year.




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