The Good: Excellent acting, Good rendering of various cultures in the drug conflict, direction!
The Bad: Inconsistent characterization, Pacing near the end, Unrelenting tone of futility
The Basics: A searing look at the drug trade and the effort to combat it, Traffic follows several people in their conflicts with drugs.
It's hard to make a good drug movie; if a film advocates drugs, it usually illustrates it poorly, using specious reasoning for the legalization of drugs and if a film speaks out against drugs, it's viewed as conservative, out of touch or a ridiculous "Hallmark Movie of the Week" for kids. It's a shame that Traffic is rated R, because this could be the best film to show in classrooms to the defiant young people who fail to believe in the consequences of drugs.
Traffic is a multi-layered story that follows various parts of the drug trade on the US/Mexico border. Montel Gordon and his partner Ray are DEA officers who are investigating Carlos, a heavy drug dealer who is ratted out by one of his minions. Carlos's wife, Helena, is feeling ostracized by her peers and wants the lifestyle she is accustomed to. In Mexico, Javier Rodriguez is being wooed by General Salazar, the chief force in the Mexican drug war combating production. Meanwhile, north of the border, Robert Wakefield is made the President's leader in the anti-drug effort in the United States. Wakefield's daughter, meanwhile, finds herself more and more addicted to heroin.
The plots weave together, with Wakefield's daughter ending up as a crack prostitute on the run from her father, Wakefield gets into a crisis of faith as his professional responsibilities conflict with his need to hold his family together. Javier, realizes that Salazar is not what he seems and attempts to inform the U.S. authorities of the danger in Mexico. And Montel works hard to keep Eduardo while Helena takes over Carlos's business and attempts to get her husband freed.
The biggest problem with Traffic is the failure to repeat character names. I spent the film referring to Montel as "Don Cheadle's character." Salazar, Javier and Javier's partner Manolo, are the only characters who have their names repeated enough to actually remember. It's irksome, especially considering how very many characters there are in this movie.
Traffic is the best inditement against drug use and the drug trade to come down the pike, well, ever. First, the leading power in the anti-drug trade, Robert Wakefield, continues to address the biggest problem, treating the addiction and ending the marketplace for drug use. Add to that, Javier illustrates the functional problem in the fight against the drug trade; a lack of a unified front between U.S. and Mexican enforcement agencies. The arguments are presented eloquently in the less-preachy form of a narrative and it works very well that way.
Moreover, the film is not biased completely against the drug trade; Helena's plot clearly illustrates the benefit of being in drug distribution. She has quite the lifestyle and it's extravagant. But the film is wickedly intelligent, illustrating the risks of that lifestyle very well.
Finally, the interrogations Montel and Ray go through with the rat from Carlos's organization, reveal the tired arguments for why drugs ought to be legalized and the futility of the drug fight. In truth, the only one that sticks by the end of the film is the idea that the budget used to fight drugs could instantly be turned into a tax cow for the government if legalized. The health aspects are shown with the clever parallel plot with Wakefield's daughter. The lifestyle she sinks into is quite unflattering and a real eye opener.
The direction works wonderfully. Steven Soderbergh's direction is incredible. His use of contrasting color and unflattering light acts as a motif that furthers the ambiguity and harshness of the war on drugs. The bright yellows of Mexico appear as a violent, natural contrast to the artificial blue light that characterizes the U.S. scenes.
But Traffic isn't a preachy film. It packs the screen with great actors who are working well. Of course, Michael Douglas, is great as Wakefield, lending the role strength and dignity that makes him such a natural actor for government roles. Benicio Del Toro is great as Javier, playing the rogue Mexican police officer. He's far more comprehensible than any other film I've seen him in.
The film's best acting comes from Don Cheadle. He takes on a strong dramatic role in Traffic. He plays Montel as a man with great inner strength and a wonderful physical presence. He's in the best shape of the cast and it makes sense that he would be the one running and jumping and such. His dialog is great, laid back body language fits his character perfectly.
In the end, Traffic is a compelling film that follows all angles of the drug trade and it does it with style, even if near the end it begins to drag in terms of plot.
For other works with Luis Guzman, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
He’s Just Not That Into You
Fast Food Nation
Waiting . . .
NYPD Blue - Season 1
For other film reviews, be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the films I have reviewed!
© 2012, 2002 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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