"Traffic" (IMDb listing) is a deeply felt and deeply flawed film. Based upon the British miniseries "Traffik" this new version purports to delve deep into the layers of the war on drugs and expose the contradictions of the battle. Directed by "It" helmer Steven Soderbergh, "Traffic" doesn't really capture the epic sweep of this controversy, instead focusing on the damage it has inflicted on individual people. The effect of this plan of attack results in a very intimate and truthful film, but one without much focus or spirit.
"Traffic" follows five different stories in place of one collective tale. Michael Douglas stars as a newly appointed Drug Czar with a daughter (Erika Christensen) in her early stages of heroin addiction. Benicio Del Toro stars as a corrupt Mexican cop who becomes intimately involved with the drug cartels. Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman star as two U.S. cops who are trying to bring down a drug kingpin (Steven Bauer), and Catherine Zeta Jones stars as the kingpin's wife who must take over her husband's business affairs after he is taken into custody. The stories all give different insights into drug policies and emotional damage, with an ensemble of players so overwhelming assured that you'd have to think Soderbergh sold his soul to the devil to have the chance to work with such talented actors.
Soderbergh, who also directed the smash "Erin Brockovich" less than a year ago, seems to be hellbent on giving his films a natural, realistic look to them, regardless if the story warrants it or not. Photographing "Traffic" himself, Soderbergh gives each individual storyline it's own unique color and texture. For Mexico, it's a blown-out yellow. California gets softer, more cinematic browns and whites. And for Washington D.C. and other American locations, a steely blue. This helps "Traffic" in identifying locations and moods very easily. Soderbergh also brings his hand-held cameras and jump cuts within the scenes with him again, and I'll admit that these aesthetic choices help in creating internal moments with the characters and their plights. But by the very same token, Soderbergh's films have become repetitive and visually predictable, as the director has rendered his last four films ("Traffic," "Erin Brockovich," "The Limey," and "Out of Sight") almost indistinguishable from each other.
While I applaud Soderbergh's sensibilities and his minimalist form, the stories in "Traffic" need a more sturdy hand guiding them. There are a million questions about the characters and situations during the film that are not answered, and a million more are presented after the limp and misguided upbeat finale. Coincidences are too coincidental, and there is one irksome piece of simple logic concerning a witness being protected by the most lax cops on earth. Soderbergh deserves many accolades for the work he has done with this material, but he also needs to change his visual motif as soon as possible.
As good as the cast is, they only have so much to work with. Case in point is Michael Douglas. As the Drug Czar with the junkie daughter, Douglas seems to have an arsenal of material to bounce off of. His character is a contradiction, a man chosen to lead America into a battle with chemical abuse, yet is losing that conflict right in his own home. A role with limitless possibilities. Yet somehow, Douglas is given a one-dimensional role here and is forced to fight tooth and nail for a character to inhabit. His performance is typically and expectedly strong, however the character isn't. He's an angry dad with as much depth as the ones you see in anti-drug commercials.
Faring much better is Benicio Del Toro, who is given the depth needed to pull off his complex role as the in-too-deep police officer. Most of his dialog is in Spanish, yet all you need is to focus on his blazing, yet remorseful eyes to see the turmoil and anxiety felt by his character. The same can be said of Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman, who rely on their proven charms and provide a little comic relief to "Traffic." Rounding out the cast, Catherine Zeta-Jones provides solid proof that there is dramatic depth behind her gorgeous exterior.
Whatever the screenplay by Stephan Gaghan lacks in cohesion, it certainly makes up for in facts. Actually, the film stops every 30 minutes to remind us of the facts. Literally. I'm still on the fence as to whether this works in the film's favor or not, but it does distract. It also doesn't meld with the script to have a trash-talking kid suddenly vomit stats and percentages of drug use in America when the inspiration of the film is lacking. The movie itself should provide the details, not pie charts.
What "Traffic" does provide is the rare in-depth look into the planet's second biggest problem. Soderbergh gets right in there and forces us to watch the gritty details, the inconsistencies, and the rampant corruption that lubes this never-ending conflict against drugs.
Filmfodder Grade: B-