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TRAFFIC

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Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Quaid, Catherine-Zeta Jones
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: USA Films
Features: See Review
Length: 147 Minutes
Release Date: May 29, 2001

“If there is a war on drugs, then many of our family members are the enemy. And I don’t know how you wage war on your own family.”

Film ****

Has America benefited from the war on drugs or faltered immensely? You might feel towards the latter after watching the remarkable film Traffic. From the perspective of director Steven Soderbergh, and it’s quite a believable one, laws against drug use and the whole war on drugs have created a profit system for the notorious business, and his movie illustrates this notion in a most fascinating way, particularly how young American teens have easy access to illegal substances. As one character points out, “For someone my age, it’s a lot easier to get drugs than it is to get alcohol.” Soderbergh’s brilliant film emerges as one of the most insightful movies in recent years.

With a running time of two and a half hours, Traffic is one of those movies that grabs you and hooks you into its world right from frame one. The film is never boring and masterfully gripping, connecting four interlocking stories all taking place within L.A., Mexico, and Ohio, each of which are masterfully told and brought together in a remarkable resolution in the end. The first story given to us is an account of Mexican drug informant Javier Rodriguez, played brilliantly by Benicio Del Toro in a much deserving Oscar winning performance. Rodriquez is in the midst of taking down two different drug cartels in Mexico, where we learn that law enforcement is a profitable business. Javier is above all an honest man in his profession, determined only to receive a little pay, stay alive, and do his job.

Cut to Ohio, where Judge Bob Wakefield (Michael Douglas), has just been appointed by the President of the United States as the new U.S. Drug Czar. Wakefield is a true crusader in his fight in the war on drugs, but his family life is near destruction when he realizes that his daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen), is doing drugs right under his nose, which poses as a threat on his professional life.

The third account is that of federal agents Gordon and Castro, played by Boogie Nights’ Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman, who capture high profile drug kingpin Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer). Their primary intention is to keep Ruiz in tight custody so that the agents can have him give up the name of his superior.

Around the same time the feds arrest Ruiz, San Diego DEA agents arrest top billionaire executive Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer). His wife, Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), is completely unaware of her husbands activities, until Carlos' business associate and lawyer Arnie Metzger (Dennis Quaid) informs her that Carlos is no a legitimate businessman, but the most wanted drug distributor in the nation. Helena is first stunned by the news, but then soon develops some criminalistic manuevers of her own in order to ensure her husband's safety from a life in jail.

Traffic is without a doubt the most effective motion picture ever made about drugs and the terrible effect it has had on our government, as well as the youth of America. One distinctive aspect of the movie is the brilliant way Soderbergh switches the use of color in order to give his settings the proper look. The scenes in Ohio are shot in dark metal like blue, while the scenes in Mexico consist of effective grainy look, much in the same way Three Kings was shot. Soderbergh also puts some hand-held camera action to very good use in a number of key scenes.

Traffic is an undeniable brilliant epic of a film with an effective message under its belt. It includes one of the best ensemble casts I've ever seen before, and it has boosted its director, Steven Soderbergh, to movie-making stardom, in addition to directing last year's hit Erin Brockovich, which I didn't rank as high as most critics did. And how about an ensemble cast to die for? All of the actors are in superb top form, highlighted by Benicio Del Toro’s masterful performance. Douglas is purely effective as the idealistic Wakefield, whose fears are brought into the light when it is realized that his daughter is an addict on the edge of self-destruction, and Catherine Zeta-Jones delivers perhaps her most dynamic performance to date, as starts out as a startled wife and then evolves into an unexpected crooked woman, all in the purpose of saving her husband and family.

On a final thought, I was extremely pleased to see that Traffic took home several Oscars this year, when I feared that Gladiator would defeat in many of the awards, which it actually did in the best picture category. However, seeing Benicio Del Toro win for supporting actor, Steven Soderbergh win for best director for this film and not Erin Brockovich, and especially seeing screenwriter and recovered addict Stephen Gaghan win for adapted screenplay pleased me more than any recent awards ceremony.

For my money, and none of it has gone to drugs I might add, Traffic was far and away the best film of 2000.

Video ***1/2

As I mentioned, the film carries a distinct look to it in each of its various settings, and USA does a mostly good job in transferring this look to DVD. The best looking scenes are actually the grainy scenes in Mexico, which is impressive in the way such a saturated look can show off so well on DVD, just like the Three Kings disc demonstrated. The scenes in Ohio and Washington, shot in steel blue, are good looking as well, though some scenes turn up a little too dark. The rest of the film transfers marvelously in a very well transferred video transfer.

Audio ***

A mostly good 5.1 Dolby Digital mix that mostly serves terrific use of the wonderful soundtrack, highlighted by a brilliant score by Cliff Martinez. Despite a couple instances of appeared audio bleeding in some minor scenes. Aside from that minor flaw, this is a quite good, very acceptable audio job from USA.

Features **

Following the wonderfully loaded disc for their release of Nurse Betty, I was hoping that USA would include the same level of extras on the disc for Traffic, but sadly, the list of extras on this disc is at a much lower level. The prime highlight of the disc is featurette “Inside Traffic”, recorded for Showtime. Also included are trailers and TV spots for the film, as well as a photo gallery. The one feature this disc truly needed and deserved was a Steven Soderbergh commentary. Hopefully, a special edition disc will come around soon, and that commentary will come to life.

Summary:

Traffic is as enthralling and enticing as American films can get. A powerful montage of an unpleasant presence in our society that is knowledgeable and un-preachy, and an all around unforgettable motion picture.