Scenes From The Drug War 

  Scenes From The Drug War 

Posted by FoM on January 05, 2001 at 11:32:49 PT
By Jay Carr, Globe Staff 
Source: Boston Globe  

The war on drugs is pretty one-sided in Steven Soderbergh's ''Traffic.'' It's the best drug-busting movie since ''The French Connection'' partly because it acknowledges the ugly fact that right now drugs are busting us more than we're busting them. But it also reminds us why despair, until recent times, was considered a sin. The traffic in ''Traffic'' is the drug traffic, and it's rush hour. 
That being said, the film is exciting to watch because Benicio Del Toro's Mexican narc and Don Cheadle's US counterpart are tough and tenacious and capable of putting a dent in the operations of druglords on both sides of the border. They know the odds are against them in this movie, which has the salutary audacity to depict incorruptible government agents, outspent and outmanned, as underdogs.It's the druglords who command the large imperial armies hitherto assumed by Hollywood to be the exclusive role of the G-men Hollywood helped mythologize. Street smarts are no small part of the equipment in the kits of the straight cops. Here's a Hollywood movie that doesn't end with an army of kevlar-clad narcs exploding out of a fleet of vans while someone shouts, ''Go, go, go!'' There is such a scene in ''Traffic,'' but unlike the phony upbeat endings of most movies, it doesn't really resolve anything. The great virtue of ''Traffic'' is that it presents the war not as one to be won by a single climactic battle, but rather a sum total of guerrilla-style skirmishes, almost block by block and man to man.The film may not be despairing, but, unlike the usual Hollywood fantasy, it is soberingly realistic about the odds and the dimensions of the problem. Its visual dynamism does a lot to sidestep what could easily seem like genre cliches. In its boldness, assurance, and propulsiveness, it's Soderbergh following his compelling but conventional ''Erin Brockovich'' with an even more virtuosic turn. ''Traffic'' has stars, but plays like an ensemble piece, not a star vehicle. The topliner, Michael Douglas, bravely portrays an incoming drug czar as a well-intended but sadly benighted judge from Ohio, called to Washington to front the so-called drug war. If war is a matter of knowing your enemy, he has already lost.Douglas portrays Robert Wakefield as a man stumbling to play catch-up as he only begins to understand how ill-equipped he is for the job. A visit to the Mexican-US border opens his eyes to the fact that he's being flanked and outnumbered by the drug cartels. Of more immediate impact is his belated realization that drugs have made their way into his own family. Is he to launch the war in his own living room? He mostly lurches around in a daze, as if trying to awaken from a bad dream. While the film's idea of upping the ante is to make rich white kids the focus of its personalization, and while the distancing of Douglas's character is perhaps too convenient to the needs of the plot, it nevertheless makes for a refreshing change from the usual authority figure, omnipotently barking orders.Douglas and the film also fall victim to Soderbergh's initially striking but ultimately mannered color-coding, a device borrowed from tinted silent movies, presumably to minimize confusion over the three intercut story lines until the pattern into which they fit emerges. Soderbergh's preservation of the documentary texture of its source (the BBC series, ''Traffik''), bolstered by smart cutting and editing, is a big plus here. The film uses actual border locations and actual government agents at work. But parts involving Douglas's out-of-it drug warrior are tinted blue, which ultimately italicizes their mostly glum and downbeat nature. The transborder drug clashes and the worlds they stain are color-coded yellow, as if photographed through a urinalysis. This is arresting at first, but again, the color filter eventually seems to stand between us and the film.Still, it's in that torrid zone that most of the payoff is to be found, as the film weaves an intricate and convincing web of treachery and death, with drug bosses buying some cops and army officers and brazenly assassinating others they can't. Del Toro is especially satisfying as the astute Mexican cop who's experienced enough to never act impulsively, although he isn't afraid to pour on the lethal force once his sense of moral outrage is ignited. I liked him from the opening scene, when his arrest of a drug dealer is interrupted by an army detail that takes over, a turn of events he regards with cool appraisal in a performance certain to make a hot career even hotter.Cheadle and Luis Guzman remind us how vividly characters can be portrayed and still remain members of an ensemble. That includes Miguel Ferrer as a mid-level dealer trying to figure out how little info he can feed the cops after being busted, then reasonably expect to stay alive; and Dennis Quaid and Steven Bauer as citizens of San Diego thought respectable because they write checks for charities with money from drug-pushing. The big surprise is Catherine Zeta-Jones as a wife and mom who has no idea what her husband does for a living until he's arrested, after which she steps in and keeps the family business going with daring her husband never approached. She even confronts a cartel boss in a tigerish performance that reveals a ferocity we never knew she had in her.The ensemble quality is, of course, a conscious choice on Soderbergh's part. Like the script's layered structure, it reinforces the fact that although the story proceeds along several tracks, and major characters never see one another, they're all interlocking parts of the same drug macroculture and capitalist subsystem. What makes it doubly terrifying is its mindless logic, destroying lives as a byproduct of its sole objective, namely the multiplying of money, with shootouts merely a means of securing a greater market share. Like ''The French Connection,'' ''Traffic'' is a jangly fable of supply and demand that's braver than most entertainments about confronting the extent to which the drug trade is just another facet of globalization, and has been, long before NAFTA.Reversing the usual Hollywood pattern, Soderbergh disdains soundtrack music, which reinforces the feeling that the film is refraining from polemics and refusing to offer us any sonic insulation from the rude truths it throws in our face. Similarly, Soderbergh's frequent recourse to a hand-held camera bolsters the message that while the drug trade may not quite be out of control, fighting it is at best a long, hard, uphill battle that must begin not with rhetoric in Washington, but at home. ''Traffic'' looks like the Oscar best-picture front-runner, and so does Soderbergh, for best director. But long after everyone has forgotten who won the statues, it will be remembered as one of film's most stylish and electrifying wake-up calls. Note: 'Traffic' offers a bold look at a highly troubled crusade.Source: Boston Globe (MA)Jay Carr, Globe StaffPublished: January 5, 2001Copyright: 2001 Globe Newspaper Company. Address: P.O. Box 2378, Boston, MA 02107-2378Contact: letter globe.comWebsite: Articles & Web Site:Traffic Official Web Site Spins Gripping Tales of the Drug Wars - Salon Magazine Kicks The Habit 

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Comment #1 posted by sm247 on January 06, 2001 at 08:10:59 PT
I will be lookin for this movie for sure!
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