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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Traffic
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Review by DVD Savant | posted June 1, 2001 | E-mail the Author
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Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Distinguished judge Robert Hudson Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is appointed the nation's drug czar, taking over from disenchanted General Ralph Landry (James Brolin) and encouraged by the President's Chief of Staff (Albert Finney).  Wakefield finds a political swamp in Washington that seems concerned doing anything about drugs, while back home with his wife Barbara (Amy Irving), he must deal with his daughter Caroline's (Erika Christensen) growing involvement in drugs as well.

In Mexico, resourceful Tijuana policeman Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) has excellent survival skills that come in handy when he's involuntarily drafted as a special operative of General Arturo Salazar (Tomas Milian), who claims to be wiping out the drug cartels of Northern Mexico.  Javier kidnaps hit man Francisco Flores, aka Frankie Flowers (Clifton Collins Jr.) for Salazar, and together with his partner Monolo (Jacob Vargas) is soon deeply enmeshed in Salazar's military regime.

In San Diego, DEA agents Ray Castro (Carlos Guzmá:n) and Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) capture smuggler Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer) and force him to finger affluent bigshot Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), whose unknowing wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is thrown into an emotional tailspin of debt and worry.  Lawyer Arnie Metzger (Dennis Quaid) cannot get Carlos out.  While Helena adapts to the necessity of stepping into her husband's shoes in order to retain her lifestyle, Ray and Montel struggle to keep hit men away from their star witness Eduardo.

As things become more complicated, the three plots begin to interconnect. Frankie Flowers is recruited by a now drug-wise Helena; Javier and his partner independently connect with Wakefield's DEA agents, and Wakefield meets with Salazar to continue the War on Drugs, not knowing the general is playing a double game.  Ironically, when Wakefield takes into his own hands the finding of his lost, heroin-addicted daugher, it's her boyfriend and drug source, preppy-jerk Seth Abrahams, (Topher Grace) who lectures him on the truth of the situation, and the depth of his illusions.

Taking on the subject of drugs in America is a very daunting challenge, which Traffic does exceedingly well.  (We Yankees should be seeing the UK original, Traffik, soon.)  The message here is that our government's war against drugs is really an excuse to not deal with the social problems involved.  Business is far more powerful than government, and now that government is really just a PR branch of big business, it's easy to see the drug cartels as less-inhibited, wild-cat businessmen.

Traffic is a socially-conscious liberal 'issue' movie, the kind conservatives decry as slanted and biased.  Of course that's true, and Traffic is no less calculated than Philadelphia or even Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in its desire to sway the opinion of its viewers.  The trick is to not be condescending: the common denominator of all three movies is that very intelligent liberal filmmakers have tried to make the movie they think the public is ready to see.  The message wants to be, 'Here's enlightenment with your entertainment.'

There's tough talk in Traffic, and an honest appraisal of the enormity of a foe that can outspend the US government, and even outfight it.  Corruption in Mexico is very clearly delineated, but the filmmakers have decided to take the approach that on the US side of things, there is only well-meaning naiveté.  Telling America that it needs to wise up and realize that drugs are all around them is the task of Traffic.  Going further and saying that the War on Drugs industry itself might be suspect, is a pill America still won't swallow, even after the 'isolated case' of ContraGate.  The economic Drug Underworld shares with legitimate business the desire to hide and launder money, and the need to market to its customer base with the least possible government interference.

Everyone knows people who have become victims to drugs, often in our own families, and this film wisely stays on a personal level.  If Judge Wakefield came out and admitted his daughter were an addict, his ability to function in Washington would be as ruined as are Helena Ayala's prospects of tearing duck with the girls at the country club, after she's tainted as the wife of a druglord.  Drugs 'aren't there', and people involved with them 'aren't there'.  If the movie is refreshing, it's because it's bluntly honest in showing affluent kids turning on, drug cops knowing full well they're running up sand hills ('some day I wanna make big arrests, you know, white people'), and an entire planeload of bureaucrats without a single idea to offer on how to do their jobs.  It's critical that the prevention-education people aren't on the plane, or there definitely wouldn't be silence!  Giving the smart-ass private-school dealer the big speech relating Drugs to Class and Economic reality is the strongest and most honest scene of all.

Multi-plot, multi-character sagas are tough to make work in these days where even giant blockbuster epics (like Gladiator, one tenth the movie this is) seem to have only a handful of speaking parts.  Soderbergh helps keep his stories straight by visually stylizing the three main subplots, with a yellowish cast for Mexico and a blue one for some of the Michael Douglas scenes.  The script never bogs down in bald exposition, although quite a few characters harangue others with their opinions.  Miguel Ferrer's defeated smuggler does this exceptionally well.

Mexico is handled fairly, even if it's too easy for those so inclined to judge the whole country on the basis of what they see here.  Making Javier so savvy and controlled will do a lot for the image of Mexican males - note that we don't see him relating to a girlfriend or a wife, where he might be revealed as thuggishly macho: instead, we see him consoling Manolo's despondent wife, as a proper caballero.  Kingpin Ayalya comes off as a less threatening version of the demonized character played by Robert Davi in Licence to Kill; the most personally refreshing scenes in the movie for this viewer were the ones showing the affluent, gracious Ayalas turning into vicious killers the moment their lifestyle is endangered.  That's the true face of upscale living in Savant's book.

Second runner-up is the moment when Caroline and friends try to dump their OD'd pal on the emergency room driveway.  All this money, good schooling and parental concern mean nothing in the face of draconian drug laws - ethics are no longer an issue.  1  Kids will abandon each other to die, just to avoid the problem.  Finally, the sight of the drug czar's daughter being ****ed by the downtown drug dealer is a shock many, many complacent parents need to see ... maybe it will make a few realize what their kids are doing, and conclude that conservative 'just say no' speeches are patronizing nonsense.

Although the complicated plot is made amazingly clear, there are a few confusing situations, such as figuring out exactly who is trying to kill who and why in the double-assassination scene.  And many people don't follow Catherine Zeta-Jones' conversion from shocked housewife, to replacement Drug Czar.  Dialog hinting at the fact that her husband found her as a prostitute doesn't help many viewers; how does that reconcile with the charming, refined woman we first meet?  The answer is that too many of us still believe in cultural fairy tales, like the kind that draw a line between the two types of women.

Traffic is too smart to make speeches.  The 1956 movie The Harder they Fall ends with Humphrey Bogary quitting to make a big anti-boxing statement.  He starts typing his exposé as 'the end' fades up.  If Traffic were treated similarly, Michael Douglas would quit in front of the microphones, and tell everyone off - the President, the military, all of us.  Douglas' father Kirk essentially does just this in Paths of Glory.  That's the grandstanding cliché that usually prevails when filmmakers want to garner awards for being 'courageous', and it's nice that this movie avoids it.

I was taught that Sinclair Lewis' The Octopus truly influenced public opinion against robber barons and helped Theodore Roosevelt with his reforms.  How you value Traffic may depend on whether you measure its success as entertainment, or influence.  Sometimes these socially conscious films have the knack of showing the whole culture what it already knew, but didn't collectively know it knew.  If the result is just more hopelessness and apathy, then perhaps it's too late for this kind of film.  I think Traffic is more constructive than that.  Without ever saying so in words, it makes us believe that our War on Drugs is just a war on our own children for political publicity.  That's a very healthy idea.

USA Home Entertainment's DVD of Traffic recreates the theatrical experience well, retaining the strange color-toned sequences, which now look as though they might have been shot on Digital Video.  Although not a showcase for audio or visual effects, the polished presentation focuses our attention on the drama, which is appropriate.  The disc offers no Soderbergh commentary, which is interesting because I just got through listening to him on the Catch-22 disc.  A stunning thriller, a gripping drama, and a subversive think-piece, Traffic is one of the first great movies of the new century.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Traffic rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailers, TV spots, featurette, photo gallery
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: May 31, 2001


1. As a freshman at UCLA in 1970, my out-of-town roomate smoked a joint for the first time in the dorms, lost perspective, and was soon arrested innocently toking on Hollywood boulevard.  The ethics of his 'crime' were nothing compared to the weight that came down on him - threatening him with expulsion.  It caused such a disruption in his life, with the law trying to criminalize him, that he was quickly radicalized against anything governmental.

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