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115 out of 153 people found the following review useful:

The Real Best Film of 2000

9/10
Author: MadReviewer from Oldwick, NJ
16 July 2001

A dazzlingly complex film, `Traffic' takes a hard, unflinching look at the so-called `war on drugs' that is perfectly clear and uncompromising. Director Steven Soderbergh takes the various viewpoints of the drug culture -- the users, the dealers, the police, and the politicians -- and weaves their differing stories together into a single story that is both deep in its ideas but very simple to understand. In terms of story, direction, and characters, `Traffic' is easily Soderbergh's best film to date, and one of the best films made in recent years, period.

`Traffic' takes a look at the world of drugs through the stories and lives of different characters. Some are loosely connected to one another; some are not. There is the story of Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro), a Mexican policeman struggling to keep his distance from the corruption that seems to follow him everywhere; there is the story of Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) and Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle), two DEA agents trying to turn the low-level drug dealer Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer) against his drug cartel boss; there's the story of Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the unsuspecting wife of the drug cartel boss who suddenly learns who her husband really is and what he does for a living; and then there's the new head of the DEA, Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), a man so wrapped up in his mission to stop the war on drug, he fails to notice that his own daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is becoming addicted to crack. Much like in the real world, the events of each story directly or indirectly affect the events of the others, leaving all the characters to consider their roles in the drug culture . . . and what, if anything, they can do to change those roles.

In terms of story, `Traffic' is absolutely brilliant. I'm still amazed that the film could cover so many plotlines and dozens of characters so effortlessly. Each story -- whether it's Helena assuming the role of her drug-dealing husband, or Robert canceling DEA meetings so he can deal with his drug-addicted daughter -- is powerful and brutally honest. `Traffic' isn't afraid to look at tough or uncomfortable issues. `Traffic', somewhat surprisingly, never preaches, either -- while it's safe to say that the message of the film is essentially anti-drug, it never comes out and outright says that message. A lesser film would've had some grandiose speech imbedded somewhere in the film denouncing the use of drugs -- not `Traffic'. It's wise enough to let the viewer take what messages they want from the film, without ever preaching. (A minor quibble -- did Michael Douglas' character really have to be the new drug czar of the United States? The fact that he was the top law enforcement drug official in the U.S., and that his daughter was addicted to drug . . . well, it seemed a little too far-fetched, and a little too movie-like. If Mr. Douglas had been playing ONE of the top drug officials in the federal government, instead of THE top official, I would've found his character to be infinitely more believable.)

Soderbergh's also at the top of his game with his direction of `Traffic'. The film is virtually filmed entirely with hand-held camera, giving each and every scene an up-close-and-personal feel. There's also a distinct lack of background music, which lets the viewer feel like they're eavesdropping on real-life scenes, and not just watching a movie. These techniques make for a very personal, intense experience. Soderbergh also uses a technique he's used in some of his other films (Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich) -- certain scenes are filtered a specific color, to heighten a mood or a sense of awareness of what's about to happen. The scenes in Mexico featuring the Mexican detective Javier, for example, are all filmed in a very bright, almost disorienting yellow. It's a technique that can be irritating at times, but for the most part, it serves a bold purpose that truly adds to the film.

As for the characters, and the acting . . . jeez, `Traffic' is without a doubt one of the best-cast films of all time. I mean it. There are no weak links, no poorly written characters, and no badly played characters. Each and every character adds something significant to the story in `Traffic', and each and every actor is outstanding. Kudos must go to possibly one of the best ensemble casts of all time. Three actors in particular stand out, though -- Benicio Del Toro (who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance), Don Cheadle (who was actually slightly better than the brilliant performance of Mr. Del Toro, IMHO), and Catherine Zeta-Jones. I'm normally loathe to use the word `flawless' when describing a film, but the casting of `Traffic' was indeed flawless.

`Traffic', with its unflinching look at drug use in America today, can be uncomfortable at times to watch. It certainly can't be termed a `happy' or a `feel-good' film. That doesn't change the fact that it is an amazing, thought-provoking, powerful film -- and without a doubt the best film released in the year 2000. I can't recommend this film enough. Grade: A

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91 out of 121 people found the following review useful:

All you could ask for.

9/10
Author: Subir Grewal (subir1) from NYC
28 January 2001

No compromises here. Traffic takes a long, hard look at the narcotics industry in North America and manages to entertain at the same time. The triple plot allows you to see the whole industry with multiple perspectives. The movie is visually stunning, loved the different filters for the three locations.

That the war on drugs cannot be won, and is hypocritical to boot, is a message that needs as much air-time as it can get.

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63 out of 79 people found the following review useful:

Soderbergh's best film is a thrilling ride...

10/10
Author: (xraymonkey71) from Chicago, IL
19 December 2000

The film more than delivers on every level and is certainly a lock for Best Picture of the year. Soderbergh has been on an astonishing roll, demonstrating exceptional versatility in his choice of genres and tremendous agility in balancing artistry with entertainment. He's been America's most consistently brilliant and unpredictable filmmaker for the last decade, and Traffic is the culminating work of his career. First and foremost, it's a richly entertaining epic that recalls the great works of the 1970s, when directors like Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola engaged mass audiences with works of genuine substance. Soderbergh works on a larger canvass than he's ever done before, bouncing several characters and plot-lines against and off each other, so that images and themes rhyme and echo. Although the subject matter is drug trafficking, this is not an "issues" movie per se. Instead, it's a profoundly affecting dramatic thriller where the destructive forces of drugs cut across different sections of society. What's most impressive about the direction is how Soderbergh manages to avoid both sentimentalizing and moralizing about drugs. As with Erin Brockovich, there's a graceful absence of self-importance and bombast in the presentation. However, this doesn't mean the film lacks a strong point of view.

Stylistically, this film represents a major breakthrough. Soderbergh shot the film himself (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews) and Traffic takes all of his past experiments with color, available light, and hand-held work light-years beyond The Limey and Out of Sight. He has created a brilliant style that could best characterized as expressionistic naturalism. His loose hand-held style lends the film an extremely spontaneous realistic tone, but the modifications of color amplify the drama. Each storyline has its own distinct look that accentuates the emotions underlining the film. (The Mexico story involving Benicio Del Toro is told in earthy saturated yellows, the story of Michael Douglas and his daughter Erika Christensen is told in an aquarium blue, while the Catherine Zeta-Jones, Luis Guzman-Don Cheadle story gets a natural available light look). In addition to being visually striking and cool in a completely unpretentious manner, Soderbergh's camera technique transcends mere virtuosity and actually becomes another character in the film. As usual with Soderbergh, the film is edited with musical verve and skill, where time is collapsed and expanded, and characters are seen reflecting on past actions.

I've been remiss in not discussing the acting earlier. This film has an amazing ensemble cast where everybody is working at the top of their game. However, Benicio Del Toro definitely stands out with the breakthrough performance. I don't think it's accidental that the movie begins and ends with shots of him. He plays Javier Rodriguez, a Mexican police officer caught in a futile and corrupt system, and it's as compelling of a character as Michael Corleone. Del Toro is exceptionally relaxed and subtle, keeping his thoughts and feelings private from the other characters in the films, but sharing it with the camera. Del Toro navigates the audience through a world of impossible choices and moral corruption, quietly simmering with intense conflict just beneath the surface. Benicio's been an indie stalwart for years, but this film should shoot his stock through the roof. If there's justice in this world, he'll be rewarded with Best Actor Awards aplenty.

Michael Douglas is also terrific, adding another strong performance to his gallery of flawed men in power. He shows genuine fear and vulnerability in a harrowing scene in which he searches for his daughter in a drug dealer's den. I've never seen Erika Christensen before, but she makes an impressive debut. Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman (they should star as a team in every movie!) are as loose, limber and spontaneous as ever, providing plenty of comic relief as well as keeping it real. Catherine Zeta-Jones takes a complete 180 from her past roles and admirably plays against her looks, appearing very pregnant while thrown into gritty surroundings. Dennis Quaid is appropriately slimy as a corrupt lawyer.

Anyway, film geeks and anybody else starved for a genuine piece of filmmaking should breathe a sigh of relief and give thanks that Soderbergh has come to save the day.

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66 out of 91 people found the following review useful:

Technically great, acting's great, the whole damn thing's great

Author: the_eggman (the_eggman@ireland.com) from zcz04
30 March 2001

It certainly has been a good 12 months for director Stephen Soderbergh, hasn't it? Erin Brockovich, probably the most underrated film of last year, eventually got the recognition Soderbergh, Roberts +Co deserved, as did this film, a chilling account of drug trafficking in North and Central America. As seen in 'Erin Brockovich', Soderbergh often deals with people under immense pressure, and this is quite evident here, telling the story of a new US drug control officer (Michael Douglas) whose daughter is rapidly becoming a drug addict (Erika Christensen). It also shows us the struggles of a drug trafficker's society wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whose husband is facing a conviction, and also that of a cop accused of corruption. The direction is superb throughout, speaking in tones, very believable tones, and contrasting atmospheres. The portrayal of Mexico, as a behind-the-scenes nightmare world of seediness, humidity (you can almost FEEL the heat) and as a place where one murder matters not, is handled excellently, Soderbergh quite cleverly using sepiatones to convey the mood. This high standard, which is often difficult to maintain in a movie of its length (2 ½ hours) is maintained, and while at times it borders on arty, it is done thoughtfully, incisively and effectively, the scenes of importance delivered in tense, muted tones. Javier Rodriguez's (Benicio Del Toro) character and personality is both strong and incredibly well-acted - the quiet, thick skinned yet razor-sharp mind suiting his environment perfectly, and his acting is often crucial to the moods set in the film, for example in creating the tense, unearthly atmosphere of Mexico. This quiet confidence is also a key part of one of the film's many underlying messages, namely a study in resourcefulness and where it gets us, particularly in Catherine Zeta-Jones' character, a trophy wife of a drug trafficker who is under arrest. Resourceful as she is, it takes her down the darkest and lowest moral alleyways, and this can be compared to 'Erin Brockovich', where another stressed woman used a different kind of soul and fighting spirit to get results. This film also deals with family life, and the movie cliché of 'daddy never being around' is handled exceptionally well. This time the daddy is the newly-instated drugs officer (Michael Douglas) fighting drugs on two fronts: the Mexican Border and his own home, as he struggles to keep his adolescent daughter on the straight and narrow. The characters are all strong and well acted, I can't put my finger on a single bad performance, but Benicio Del Toro is by far the best on show and his Oscar was well deserved. Michael Douglas proves again that he's a class act, as does Catherine Zeta-Jones and strength in depth is clear all round. All in all, then, a great film, combining good acting, clever psychological undertones and classy direction, which particularly stands out. Combining an ability to keep us interested with the snappy, modern style which he has brought to the movies today - this film is a gripping account and a very comprehensive display of Soderbergh's impressive arsenal of film knowledge, understanding and talent.

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62 out of 89 people found the following review useful:

A Sodebergh Binge

9/10
Author: Donald Agustamarian from London, England
1 January 2005

Yep, I'm on a full Sodebergh binge. I've been crazy about him ever since "King of The Hill" and he, very rarely, lets me down. I couldn't say that about many people including siblings and lovers. "Traffic" is not a departure for Sodebergh, all of his films are. He is an artist with a golden touch. He can travel through opposing universes with amazing ease. In "Traffic" the universe is uncomfortable, muddy, almost ugly and yet, it fascinates and attracts with the power of a magic magnet. Benicio del Toro and Erika Christensen are the two inhabitants of this peculiar universe that get under your skin and carry with you as if they were part of a personal experience. No, not if. They do, they are, they become part of a personal experience. The film allows you that. It makes you learn without preaching. How many films today manage that?

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42 out of 50 people found the following review useful:

Traffic delivers a powerful message with impeccable flair.

10/10
Author: bigrogges from Woodstock, IL
9 January 2001

Early in the year 2000, director Steven Soderbergh's film, Erin Brokovich, sizzled at the box office (bringing in over $130 million) while receiving critical acclaim. Now, with the release of his latest film, Traffic, Soderbergh stands to earn Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Picture for both of these movies. It's no wonder, either, as Traffic is one of the most gripping films to hit theatres in 2000.

Traffic takes on the complex issues involved with the war on drugs in the United States and Mexico from the view of these nations as a whole to the very personal level. In the film, three stories unfold to illustrate the near impossibility of ever stopping the drug trade, despite the billion dollars that the US spends each year for just that cause. While the tales are related, the characters rarely, if ever, cross paths with one another. This is one of the elements that allows Soderbergh to deliver his message so effectively.

The first story features Benicio Del Toro as Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez. A cop in Baja, Mexico, he enforces the law and allows the wheels to be greased from time to time. After pulling off a huge drug bust on the Juarez drug cartel, the powerful General Salazar swoops in to confiscate all of the drugs and the credit. Later, Javier and his partner are recruited by Salazar to fight the war on drugs by aiding him in bringing down the Obregon cartel that has plagued Tijuana for some time.

Meanwhile, back in the States, Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) of the Ohio Supreme Court is about to be appointed by the President as the nation's new leader in the drug war. For the judge, the drug war is about to become more personal than he could ever have imagined.

In San Diego, Monty (Don Cheadle) and Ray (Luis Guzman) are two federal agents perpetrating a drug bust on a slimy drug supplier named Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer). The events that follow lead them up the drug food chain to Carlos Ayala, a well-to-do suburban man who has been smuggling illegal drugs into the country from Mexico. His arrest leaves his pregnant wife, Helena (Katherine Zeta-Jones, who was really pregnant during the film), to fend for herself while taking care of their son, court costs, and a $3 million dollar debt to the drug lords in Mexico.

Traffic, written by Simon Moore (the writer for the British miniseries, Traffik, upon which this script is based), is superbly crafted and woven. We learn just enough about each character to give us some insight into their motives for the courses they choose to follow. By the films end, matters are not neatly wrapped up; there is not a fairy tale ending. This simply adds to the realism of the issues presented within the movie. Furthermore, the intertwining stories drive home the fact that drugs are closer to you than you think.

The script is bolstered by the phenomenal, ensemble cast. Zeta-Jones and Del Toro have both received Golden Globe nominations for Best Supporting Actress and Actor in a drama for their roles in this film. Don Cheadle is superb in his role. Michael Douglas gives his usual performance while Erika Christensen does a good job as his daughter. Topher Grace (of TV's That 70's Show) is excellent as her upper-class, druggie boyfriend. Dennis Quid's character, while played adequately, is underused.

The stories were shot using various filters and lenses, neatly separating them as the film went from one to another and adding to the viewing pleasure of the movie. Mexico is filmed through a hand held camera and yellow lens to give it a dry, grainy, shaky look that heightens the feel of unrest involved with Del Toro's situation. Douglas' story is initially filmed in a hue of solemn, comforting blue. Zeta-Jones' story is filmed without the use of lenses, suggesting that her situation and actions are the most realistic and achievable of all those presented.

Despite some dialogue that spouts off statistics and seems a bit preachy, Traffic ranks among the top ten films of 2000, surpassing even Soderbergh's other venture, Erin Brokovich. Don't be surprised if this film picks up the Oscar for Best Picture.

By film's end, the message is clear and powerful. The fight against drugs is a long, uphill battle, but it is better than no battle at all.

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47 out of 67 people found the following review useful:

One of the best movies of the year, but not worthy of ALL of its praise. ***1/2 (out of four)

8/10
Author: Blake French (baffilmcritic@cs.com) from USA
28 March 2001

TRAFFIC / (2000) ***1/2 (out of four)

"Traffic" caught some of the most gratifying praise in the year 2000. Does the production live up to its expectations? To some extent. It is not a movie to take the family to on a Sunday afternoon, nor is it an "entertaining" popcorn extravaganza. "Traffic" is one of the best films of the year, but it is not a movie for everyone. I had my fair share of disappointments, and I think many audiences will walk away unsatisfied by its documentary-like style and unusual structure. "Traffic" is still a great achievement in filmmaking and visual style-worthy of some, but not quite all, of its great acclamation.

The movie's director, Steven Soderbergh, won Oscar nominations for both of his movies last year: "Erin Brockovich" starring Julia Roberts, and this epic about the never ending war on drugs. That first film is entertaining and charming, but this is far more complex in its story. There are actually three separate plots here, the first detailing two Tijuana cops (Benicio Del Toro and Jacob Vargas) who find themselves in the middle of a corrupt police force, working for Gereal Arturo Salazar (Thomas Milian), Mexico's top drug aggressor who wants to shut down the Tijuana drug cartel by capturing a notorious assassin (Clifton Collins Jr.).

The second story has Michael Douglas as a conservative Ohio State Supreme Court Judge turned nation's new drug czar. He has a savage job, as we can see, but it is even more difficult being the father of a 16-year-old daughter (Erika Christensen), who gets straight A's in school, but uses heavy drugs and eventually prostitutes herself for them when the supply runs low. Amy Irving plays her mother whom herself tried every kind of drug in the market when she was young and thinks her daughter should be given more freedom in this area of maturing. Her husband strongly disagrees.

The third story is a bit more complicated, dealing with the reactions of a typical pregnant homemaker, Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), when she finds out her husband, Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), is not an executive, but a high-powered drug lord. He is taken into custody when undercover DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luiz Guzman) crack a disreputable drug cartel led by Juan Orbergon (Benjamin Bratt). Helena, with the help from her attorney (Dennis Quaid), must deal with the pressures by her husband's demanding enemies, as well as the DEA. Miguel Ferrer plays the middle-run drug dealer who is captured by the DEA agents and wants immunity for testifying against the high-powered bosses for whom he works.

"Traffic" does not have the harrowing, compassionate, hard-to-watch tone that "Requiem for a Dream" had earlier last year, which also contained three different although parallel stories. That film depicted drug use as personal success followed by desolation and punishment. "Traffic" doesn't really make drugs personal, although the plot featuring Michael Douglas' drug addicted daughter touches on the idea, and the actors do a good job of making the character's attitudes hit home, but the film is more about the war on drugs within America as a country, and how it is a battle not likely to be won anytime soon. The picture does not capture the feeling of the characters like "Requiem for a Dream" did with its highly elaborate styles and camera effects. "Traffic" just isn't as emotionally profound as the much more worthy "Requiem for a Dream."

Steven Soderbergh does manage to capture an inciting style with grainy, high contrast photography exploring the atmosphere of Mexico. He pays attention to even the smallest scenes. Take a scene where the Benicio De Toro character encounters a young married couple who complain about their stolen car. Many directors would have left this scene on the editing tables, or paid less courtesy to it because it is not as important as many other scenes. He gets the right mood, confusion of the characters, all while furthering the development of De Toro's character. Each individual scene here is interesting on its own merit.

A top notch cast contributes superb performances in "Traffic." We expect and receive good performances from actors like Michael Douglas, Amy Irving, Dennis Quaid, Benicio Del Toro, and Albert Finney, but there are also some newcomers who shine with their material, including Erika Christensen and Topher Gracer. The actors really hold our attention, and with a running time of nearly 150 minutes, that is imperative. This film is greatly constructed and perfectly cast-it is the kind of movie in which you walk out of the theater wanting to discuss your opinions about it.

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19 out of 21 people found the following review useful:

the best american film of 2000

10/10
Author: (mkrotov@hotmail.com) from roswell, georgia
20 January 2001

Traffic is an incredible movie. The director, Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies and videotape, out of sight, erin brockovich, etc...) has created a film that combines elements of Hollywood and independent filmmaking. On one hand, he has created an epic that has a very wide scope and has used some famous Hollywood actors. On the other hand, as the cameraman for the film, he has shot it with a handheld camera and and makes the film visually very different from traditional films. He presents the drug war in the United States from three perspectives. The first is of a police officer (superbly played by Benicio del Toro)in Tijuana struggling with the difficult situations that such a job creates in the center of drug trafficking from Mexico to the United States. Catherine Zeta Jones plays the wife of the leader of a drug cartel in San Diego who gets arrested. Once naive about his business, she takes charge of the operations. The third story deals with the appointment of conservative Ohio Supreme Court justice Robert Wakefield, played by Michael Douglas, to the post of drug czar. This occurs while his daughter Caroline, portrayed emotionally by Erika Christensen starts descending into a world of drugs thanks to her boyfriend Seth Abrahams. (Topher Grace from "That 70's Show" plays Seth) These three stories are distinguishable visually. The Tijuana story is shot with different tones of yellow, giving everything that goes on in the story a feel similar to that of a hot desert. The San Diego story has warm soft colors, representing Helena Ayala's (Catherine Zeta Jones' character) once peaceful social soccer mom life. Finally, Cincinatti and Washington, D.C., the cities where the story of the drug czar takes place is shot in a cold blue, giving it an emotionless feel. Despite the importance of the visuals, what makes this film that much better is the fact that Soderbergh does not moralize. There is not an anti-drug stance but there is also not a strong advocacy of legalization. Traffic shows a problem with no current solution. The viewer has to decide for himself. 10/10

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22 out of 29 people found the following review useful:

Soderbergh scores again!

8/10
Author: Dale Hamm (cdh-2) from Yuma, AZ
16 July 2001

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Director Steven Soderbergh's latest film, "Traffic," covers the US/Mexican War on Drugs-specifically, cocaine-from several different angles. Three separate but interconnected storylines show dealers, users, cops, smugglers, lawyers, government officials-everyone but the South American growers.

We get to hear the arguments on all sides and see the impacts on many people's lives-innocent, guilty, and everywhere in between. But in an early scene when Erika Christensen takes her first hit of freebase, the look of sheer bliss on her face sends the message that this war is already lost. As long as something can give people this kind of high, they won't care about how much it costs them and not all the laws and governments on Earth will keep it from getting to them.

The cast is large, full of good actors in juicy roles-Michael Douglas, Benecio Del Toro, Dennis Quaid, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman, Miguel Ferrer, to name a few. Newcomers Christensen and Topher Grace stand out as spoiled teenage cokeheads. And if you look carefully, you can spot brief appearances by Albert Finney, Salma Hayek, James Brolin, and Benjamin Bratt. There are also cameos at a cocktail party by a real-life governor and five senators, at least one of whom (Orrin Hatch) has since denounced the film.

Each storyline is photographed in a different style-all shot by Soderbergh himself, with a hand-held camera, under the pseudonym Peter Andrews. Cincinnati and Washington are blue, hard, and cold; Mexico is overexposed, dusty, and brown-filtered; and San Diego is warm and soft-focused. At times I thought the jerky camera movement and jump cut editing started to get pretentiously artsy and distracting, but the story and the characters always pulled me back in.

The script by Stephen Gaghan-based on a 1990 British TV miniseries-may use situations and character types familiar to us from years of TV cop shows and other movies, but Soderbergh and the cast make them seem fresh and exciting again. For a change, style and substance work together, not against each other. It was like when I saw DePalma's "Scarface" or the series "Miami Vice" for the first time.

The only time my credulity was challenged was when drug czar Douglas went looking for his addict daughter in the worst-and apparently all-black-part of Cincinnati, kicking down doors and threatening an armed dealer himself. The guy's supposed to be a popular, hard-nosed, law-and-order judge. Surely he could've found some sympathetic cops to handle the rough stuff for him. This, for me, was the only scene where the movie took a turn for the stupid. And, to the film's credit, this stupid behavior almost gets Douglas killed.

Soderbergh got my attention three years ago with "Out of Sight" and knocked me out again last year with "Erin Brockovich". He fully deserves all the nominations and awards he's been getting lately. >

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25 out of 36 people found the following review useful:

Soderbergh splashes colors with the dash and power of a Jackson Pollock

Author: Terry Meehan from Lakewood, Ohio
19 January 2001

Traffic (2000)

Like an abstract expressionist master, Steven Soderbergh stands in the center of a canvas that stretches from Cincinnati to Tijuana. He mixes materials and splashes colors with the dash and power of a Jackson Pollock. His materials are skillful acting, lively editing, a dynamic music score, and an unflinching camera. (He did his own lensing, under a pseudonym). The artist's aim? To paint a picture of our country's drug problem.

Scripted by Stephen Gaghan, "Traffic" has its roots in a 1989 British television mini-series, "Traffik," which followed the drug trade from Pakistan to Britain. There are three loosely related stories, each with its own color coding--and as with Pollock, there is nothing random about where the paint splashes upon the canvas.

Blue hues bathe blue bloods in Cincinnati where an Ohio Supreme Court Justice (Michael Douglas) is flattered into taking a job as national drug czar, just as his bright young daughter (Erika Christensen) is seduced into addiction by her prep-school friends.

A rich golden-yellow surrounds San Diego where a comely couple (Catherine Zeta-Jones and Steven Bauer) occupy the upper links of the drug chain and spend ill-gotten cash on clothes, cars and country clubs. They are pursued by two undercover cops (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) who spend most of their screen time cooped up in a surveillance van.

In Mexico, a washed-out, burnished brown bespatters a desert of desperation as two Baja policemen (Benicio Del Toro and Jacob Vargas) pull off a major drug bust only to be themselves busted, by a sinister general (Tomas Milian) who notifies them that 'I will take over from here.' Each color signifies its own impenetrable culture, and when Douglas crosses into Mexico to meet his counterpart, we know (but he doesn't) that his fellow drug czar is really a drug lord.

The performances were exceptional, especially considering that no one was given star treatment. Much of the film was shot with existing light and Soderbergh kept the composition wide, letting the actors create their own space. Douglas was surprisingly believable as the would-be czar and bookends an Oscar-worthy year with his scruffy professor in the earlier "Wonder Boys." His real-life wife, Zeta-Jones (carrying their child), gave a quite credible performance as a society snob who turns ruthless when her status is threatened.

Other stand-outs include Christensen's drugged-out daughter, Del Toro's street smart Mexican cop and Cheadle's dedicated drug buster. In fact, there was not a weak performance in the bunch, including crucial cameos by veterans Peter Riegert and Albert Finney. Real people even play roles: Douglas's fictional drug czar confers with real-life senator Orrin Hatch, while actual customs officials relate their day-to-day drug enforcement dilemmas.

Each of the three stories ends with a glimmer of hope. But despite small battles being won, the film's verdict is that the larger war is plainly being lost. As if on cue, White House Director of Drug Policy, Barry McCaffrey, has resigned effective January 6, 2001. The real-life outgoing czar, a former general, has become a vocal supporter of increased funding for treatment programs.

Like Pollock, Soderbergh continues to stretch the boundaries of his art, as he did a dozen years ago with "sex, lies, and videotape," and more recently with the undervalued "The Limey." "Erin Brockovich" though fairly conventional by his standards, nevertheless completes a year any director would envy.

Rating: 3 1/2 stars out of 4

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