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A movie on drugs: Soderbergh digs deep and delivers 'Traffic' worth sitting through

Friday, January 05, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"Traffic" may be the first Steven Soderbergh film in which the plot is as important as the people.


RATING: R for pervasive drug content, strong language, violence and sexuality.

STARRING: Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones.

DIRECTOR: Steven Soderbergh



School wants out of 'Traffic'


The movie tackles a subject no less weighty or complex than America's war on drugs, declaring it largely futile in the process. It interweaves three separate storylines, each with its own trailing threads.

This allows director Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan ("Rules of Engagement") to detail various aspects of the drug trade in Mexico and the United States and how they intersect in living rooms across America, where even smart, privileged American teen-agers smoke, snort and shoot up -- often under the noses of the parents you would think are most likely to realize it.

In other words, the film makes us ruminate upon its intricate depiction of the distribution pipeline by accounting for its human toll. Even the gritty, documentary-style portions of the film retain a personal touch by making the cops, crooks and users into individuals with strong personalities and credible motives.

The movie's agenda sometimes results in characters giving speeches disguised as dialogue, and one key plot component -- an all-too-respectable father searching for his drug-addicted daughter in an all-too-squalid part of town -- conjures up memories of similar scenes in movies like "Hardcore" that now verge on cliche.

But these quibbles don't detract from the intelligence and power of "Traffic," which has been adapted from a 1989 British miniseries written by Simon Moore.

Michael Douglas is the biggest name in the ensemble cast. He plays Robert Wakefield, chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court and the country's newly appointed anti-drug czar. He's tough, he's smart and he has no idea what he's getting into -- or that his teen-age daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen), a National Merit finalist, is becoming hooked on dope by her friends in their affluent Cincinnati suburb.

But the movie starts with Benicio Del Toro as Mexican cop Javier Rodriguez. He and his partner are recruited by Mexico's equivalent to Wakefield, General Salazar (Tomas Millan), who knows exactly what he's doing.

The third story line follows two undercover DEA agents played by Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman. Their work has resulted in the trial of Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), whose arrest as a drug baron comes as a shock to his pregnant wife, Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who finds herself in danger in her upscale San Diego neighborhood.

For the record, newlyweds Douglas and Zeta-Jones do not appear in any scenes together.

Soderbergh, a master at digging beneath the surface of his films, usually does so by manipulating the time frame to give different perspectives to the same story. Here, he does the opposite -- following three separate stories that are occurring simultaneously and merging them into a single focus.

The Douglas storyline is perhaps the most predictable, leading to Wakefield's desperate walk on his missing daughter's wild side but also to the movie's alternative answer to the drug curse.

Del Toro has been racking up the acting kudos, and for good reason. He paints Rodriguez as a man familiar with petty corruption who must learn to keep his balance on a dangerous ride through a swamp of moral ambiguity.

Cheadle is the straight man to Guzman's impulsive joker, but perhaps the most interesting arc in this plot line belongs to Zeta-Jones, left to fend for herself against her husband's enemies and managing better than we might have imagined.

Other familiar faces include Amy Irving as Mrs. Wakefield, Dennis Quaid as Helena's lawyer, Miguel Ferrer as an endangered pawn in the government's case against Carlos Ayala and Topher Grace of "That '70s Show" as the preppie druggie who turns Caroline Wakefield on.

Together, the actors make their characters into something more than pedestrians at the mercy of oncoming drug traffic.

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