Humble Mexican and American cops fight a violent, near-martyr's battle amid drug cartels, high-powered politicians and well-fed drug-running yuppies as Soderbergh reworks the terms of America's covert war on narcotics, in the process upsetting our understanding of who's on top and who's on bottom.
Most remarkable about Soderbergh's film is how expertly he manipulates a thorny tangle of storylines, maintaining a level of suspense even as he maniacally cross-cuts between the posh suburbs of Cincinnati, the sulfurous haze of Tijuana and the green sprawl of San Diego's country clubs and commercial strips.
Cutting back and forth between these geographic anomalies, Traffic also works to create a stylistic distinction between them. In Tijuana, hangdog cops Javier (Benicio Del Toro) and Manolo (Jacob Vargas) tread in a cesspool of local and national graft, vying with an equally corrupt military for a share of the vice. Looking like the weathered film stock of a '70s exploitation film, the Tijuana sequences are shot through a haze of polluted, murky yellows. In sharp contrast, Washington and Cincinnati are infused with a cold blue light that overlays scenes of Ohio State Supreme Court Justice and newly appointed drug czar Robert Wakefield's world, giving his privileged reality an aura of austere rationality and control. In San Diego, undercover DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) track a local distributor for the Mexican Obregon cartel, Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer), whose own boss is the wealthy businessman Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), living the life of a respectable nouveau riche family man with his pregnant wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Here, the golden sunshine of a seemingly merit-gained paradise is underlain with the sleazy reality of drug dealing, much as Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich revealed the corrosive exploitation lurking beneath corporate America.
But while the environments are in every sense graphically and visually incongruous, Soderbergh's film links up the lowliest Tijuana cop with the upper echelon of Washington's power structure in an egalitarian formula where all the characters work on one side of the Obregon cartel, intent on wiping it out or scoring its drugs. Wakefield (Michael Douglas) functions, to some extent, as the untutored audience stand-in in the film -- a relatively clueless but impassioned son of the establishment who goes on the cocaine front lines in Mexico. But in the meantime, his 16-year-old prep school daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) -- who has one of the film's more unbelievable and unsympathetic dramatic arcs -- learns to freebase back home. While Wakefield learns an abbreviated form of the truth about the drug war, Caroline discovers the riches of addiction in her city's own ghetto backyard. Soderbergh works such ironies well while demonstrating the pervasiveness of drugs that spread across the map like one of those black hands of fascism strangling the free world in a WWII propaganda film.
Other story tangents are less effective in Soderbergh's hands, such as Wakefield's final realization that his daughter has descended into crack whore-dom. In his Hardcore crossed with Falling Down pilgrimage into the ghetto to drag his daughter back home, Douglas gets to exercise his usual jowly, white guy outrage. As is typical of drug addiction movies, such as this year's Requiem for a Dream, the ultimate whitebread nightmare is a sweet daughter of the American middle-class hitting her country's personal bottom: trading sex with a black man for drugs.
Meanwhile, in San Diego, agents Gordon and Castro are a little closer to the gritty reality, taking bullets in the chest and watching sting operations go sour. Soderbergh's working-man sympathies are clear in these two most engaging characters, who tend to get the best smart-ass beat-cop lines and inevitably pay the biggest price for their contact high with the drug trade.
While Soderbergh's affection for working-class cops places him in the ranks of directors like Anthony Mann, he is more apt to buck tradition in his portrayal of drug dealers like Eduardo Ruiz, far from the one-note thugs of Hollywood's hothouse imagination. A smug, intelligent distributor who runs his business out of a self-storage unit, Ruiz taunts the agents about the futility of their anti-drug racket and fingers his own boss, Ayala, when the noose tightens around his own despicably pragmatic neck.
A comparably nuanced character -- and testament to the many surprises that keep Soderbergh's story from bogging down with too much cheap morality -- is Ayala's wife Helena. A feisty lady of leisure who watches her plush lifestyle vaporize into a cloud of Giorgio as her husband stews in prison, Helena proves more resourceful than the trophy wife she first appears, ambling down to Tijuana six months pregnant to deal with her husband's bad-ass drug debtors.
Though Soderbergh often attempts to put a positive spin on aspects of his characters' battles, futility and dead-ends are his real concern, and the storyline is too straight-shooting and dark to propose a neat and clean wrap up to all of these labyrinthine circumstances. In Traffic, conspiracy and a drug bureaucracy more entrenched than city hall make every step forward feel like dumb luck.
Traffic does come with its hackneyed, high-morality bits. The absence of the ambiguity of his earlier films seems a reflection of Soderbergh's transition from an iconoclastic indie in Schizopolis and King of the Hill to a still-feisty director of well-made Hollywood psychological action films about the moral quandaries of his characters. Soderbergh's idea of "edgy" social commentary can be less than convincing, as when more than once our noses are rubbed in the incomparable hypocrisy of Wakefield's scotch "habit" as the middle-American answer to coke addiction. And while Soderbergh manages to maintain an admirable momentum as he careens from one intersecting subplot to another, there are too many characters in Traffic to allow us to participate fully in each one's emotional crisis.
Despite some minor flaws, Traffic is a skilled, finely honed piece of filmmaking that suggests Soderbergh as an ever-evolving talent adapting his indie mindset to the demands of a more mainstream vision. Traffic is not the finest film of the year, as it has been touted in some critics' polls, but one would be hard-pressed to find a better crafted Hollywood blockbuster, one that faithfully revives the best of the hard-boiled crime thriller, even as it challenges a few of the preconceived notions that come with it.
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