Directed by Stephen Soderberg
Starring Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Quaid, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman

My Rating:

A riveting film about the glamorous drug trade.

Bitable Bytes:
"Sleek ... with enough oomph!"
"A powerful film!"
"Kick ass acting ... makes this ... the most gripping!"

What to do while watching:
Examine your reaction to the tension between the overarching theme of this film--drugs are dangerous and destructive--and the overarching style of this film, which portrays drugs as exciting, lucrative, and important.

What to eat while watching:
Popcorn with a drizzle of cocaine.

Last night, the Mrs. and I stayed up late to watch Traffic before it was due back at the video store this morning. We didn't start the film until 10:30, and I suppose I was hoping that it would be one of those sleek 100-minute flicks with just enough oomph to tucker a viewer out for a good night's sleep. But Traffic, like freeway traffic, took longer than expected and was not relaxing in the slightest. I slept fitfully, dreaming of Catherine Zeta-Jones' cleavage, dusted with powdered sugar, being withheld from me by a giant eagle with the head of Benicio Del Toro. This morning, I awoke singing Grandmaster Flash' White Lines, and as I drowsed through a busy day at the office, I longed for a narcotic upper for the first time in my life. I settled on Dr. Pepper.

No denying that Traffic is a powerful film. Three stories are interwoven in this gripping portrayal of drugs in the U.S. Story number one revolves around the Mexican border, from San Diego to south of Tijuana. To help the viewer keep the moods separate, different filters are used for each story, and this one is filmed with harsh desert lighting and low color saturation, almost like a faded photograph. The Tijauna tale is of Benicio Del Toro as Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez, a local cop with enough on the ball--and enough play in his moral code--to become a close ally of General Almorzar (I'm getting this name wrong), who is a key military ally of the Juarez drug cartel. Kick ass acting on Del Toro's part makes this, to me, the most gripping of the stories.

Rodriguez is clearly a decent guy even though he begins to get mixed up in the Mexican drug war. His integrity keeps him from getting offed by the mob forces that recruit him. The plot was a little thread-bare here and there, in the sense that some turns were worn thin and didn't entirely hold together; and I began to doubt and question my understanding of which characters were after what goals. Although I don't like it when a film holds my hand through its plots, I do like to understand what's going on, and in a story as convoluted as this one, I'd have appreciated not feeling so drug-addled as a viewer. However, the acting still was excellent, so I'll let this go.

Story two is back in San Diego. A drug kingpin is ratted out and arrested from his swank-u-luxe home in San Diego. His wife, the powerful Zeta-Jones, is panicked at first, but begins to get a grip, and not only on having to protect her son and cope with what the neighbors are saying. She also manages to get in on "the business," so that by the time Hubby Heroin is back at home, she's an equal and active partner.

Her company while the man is in lockup comes from two cops: Luis Guzman and Don Cheadle. These guys are monitoring bugs constantly, waiting for more leads that will help them put away the next link in the drug-war chain. The film comments heavily on what could possibly motivates these two to be straight cops. The integrity of their belief (or brainwashing) in the drug war makes them work long, unglamorous hours while the criminals bask either in the ritz of extreme wealth or the anti-ritz of the prison cell. Meanwhile, it seems clear that fighting the drug war is like trying to bail the water out of a boat with no bottom.

Add to the San Diego story an opportunist lawyer, played by Quaid, and the love-triangle is complete. While the main dude is away, the million-dollar weasel aims his sights at manipulating the wife to his own bed-along with all her wealth.

Story number three is the most heavy-handed and, among the people I've spoken with, the most negligible and/or annoying. I think it's quite nice, however, to round out the edgy acting of Del Toro and the hot and heavy story in San Diego with something placcid, mellow, downright somnambulent. It's shot with a bluish filter, muting flesh tones and bringing out the internal pain (i.e. "blues") of the characters. Michael Douglas is the father of one daughter. He has just been appointed drug czar of the United States. It's his job to fight the drug war. We get to see the politics of this cause up close, and the skeeziness of the whole business is perhaps a realistic portrayal, and interesting in that it underscores yet again Hollywood's biting the hand of Washington.

Call this ultra-realism, the kind of realism that comes from playing up each and every obvious event relating to a theme. This is exactly what the writers do with Douglas' daughter, a brilliant high-school student. In the course of a few movie-months, she becomes thoroughly addicted to everything, gets sent to a rehab camp, escapes, becomes a prostitute and crack ho, and then gets rescued in a scene that's very touching-because it signals that this plot is finally over.

I like that the Douglas character attempts to break out of politics as usual, putting himself in rehab clinics, crack houses, etc., first for business and then to rescue his daughter. But the daughter is so heavily written (and acted) that I was kind of sad she survived the ordeal. Not that killing her would have been any less clunky; it's just that after all that, the tragedy of her death would at least have justified her lightspeed descent into drug-victimhood with stops at all the major sites.

But as a close parenthesis on this entire review, I must say that the production values are high, the acting is devoted, and the story is riveting. Despite its flaws, it's a good movie, especially if you are into action, suspense and drama. As a message about drugs, the film is ambiguous, but as entertainment, it's very clear in its aim to engage and effect its audience.

Want to share a happy story with Gooden?

Gooden loves to share!

For your collection: Traffic.

Gooden's listening to: John Fred and His Playboy Band's Absolutely the Best

(in my head) Grandmaster Flash's White Lines/Scorpio

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