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Starring Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benecio Del Toro, Dennis Quaid, Catherine Zeta-Jones
Screenplay by Stephen Gaghan, based on the Channel 4 (UK) miniseries Traffik by Simon Moore
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

IN SHORT: A finely made film. [Rated R for pervasive drug content, strong language, violence and some sexuality. 147 minutes]

We've written it elsewhere so we'll be brief: The thing that almost all just-out-of-school filmmakers forget is that the truly great films are the ones that don't forget that they are, more important than anything else, movies that have great stories to tell. The sign of a great film is when A-list actors and/or stars go to work with no intention of doing a star turn or outdoing everyone else in the wannabee race for statues; who take bit parts and do more in two minutes of screentime than other actors can do in two hours; when a director trusts his script enough, and his audience for that matter, to let his stories play out in parallel over two and a half hours, and not start to bring them together until over 100 minutes in.

Yeah, two and a half hours. With an incoming storm, Cranky's back was screaming for most of it. And, like the other critics who saw this film a couple of weeks back, we all walked out saying "that didn't feel like two and a half hours!" That's how good Steven Soderbergh's Traffic is. The performances are all so perfectly balanced that -- this is going to read like a diss but it's not -- nothing screams "statue" this early in the race, save an exceptional script by Stephen Gaghan and yet another great job of directing by Soderbergh (whose Erin Brockovich is also in contention for Best of the Year). More, perhaps, when we release our Best of 2000 list.

Traffic, as in drug, runs multiple stories that take you from sun-blasted Mexico to the cool halls of of Government in Washington, D.C., with stops in upper-class retreats in San Diego and Cincinnati along the way. We begin with a hard working pair of Mexican cops, Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez (Benecio Del Toro) and his borderline astray partner Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas). On the Mexican side of the drug war we find that the local cops and the Feds, led by Army General Arturo Salazar (Tomas Milian), are not necessarily working in lock step to bring down the head of the Tijuana cartel, Juan Obregon (Benjamin Bratt). Their counterparts on our shores, Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) turn a trafficking bust into a plea bargain (Miguel Ferrer as the snitch) deal which puts "businessman" Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer) in the slammer. Ayala's wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), completely ignorant of her husband's real gig, sees her world collapse as her jailbird hubby's legal partner Arnie Metzger (Dennis Quaid) whispers the real deal in her ear -- the better not to be heard by bugs in the house, if you catch the drift.

Across the country Ohio Supreme Court justice Robert Hudson Wakefield (Michael Douglas), a 3 Scotch a day man, prepares to take a Fed job running the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Wakefield's wife Barbara (Amy Irving) sits home, bored, and his sixteen year old daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is having heavy dope-induced philosophical conversations with her friends. One of those kidlets, Seth (Topher Grace), helps move Caroline from simple toking and snorting onto the ever downward moving spiral of freebase cocaine. Seth wants into her pants. Caroline enters a world in which you feel like an angel until you wake up in hell.

Eventually the stories start moving together, not too close but close enough to push some buttons, regardless of how you stand on current drug policy. The filmmakers deliberately tried to come up with a result that will piss everybody off, and they succeed because they don't let their intentions get in the way of telling their stories. Does Traffic make a political statement? Yes, if you want it to. Or, simply, it could be about the importance of things like night baseball (or midnight basketball -- you'll see the reasons buried in the latter half of the story). Unlike some of the other serious flicks we've already seen this year, Traffic doesn't fall back on last minute preaching to make its point. Our POV has always been that you don't want to go to the cineplex for a lecture. You do want to go to see, first, performances that make you react in a story that makes you react. Hopefully, that reaction should be positive. That's how well the flick works.

James Brolin, Peter Riegert, Albert Finney, and half a dozen real life DC politicos flesh out the flick. Soderbergh shoots hand held in a style which makes you feel like a fly on the wall and his use of color (oh stop me before I have to go back into NYU Film...) to differentiate between economic and geographic classes is, actually, a nice touch.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Traffic, he would have paid...


Heavy duty serious flicks whack us every December and usually make us wish we'd never been born. Not this one. Substantial story and terrific performances mark a top notch flick.

Click for CrankyCritic® Star Talk: Catherine Zeta-Jones  Benjamin Bratt

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The Cranky Critic website is Copyright © 1995  -  2017  by Chuck Schwartz. Articles by Paul Fischer are Copyright © 1999 - 2006 Paul Fischer. All images, unless otherwise noted, are property of,©, ®, their respective studios and are used by permission. All Rights Reserved. Not to be used or copied for any commercial purpose. Academy Award(s) and Oscar®(s) are registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.