Traffic
***.6 GM
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Jacob Vargas, Michael Douglas, Erika Christensen, Topher Grace, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Don Cheadle, Miguel Ferrer, Clifton Collins Jr., Luis Guzman, Dennis Quaid

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It's hard to figure out what to make of this movie. While there are moments that are close to what one might consider storyline resolution, the film basically feels like a huge slice of life in the drug trade - and the fact that it doesn't really feel like it had an ending is part of the point. The drug war NEVER ends, despite constant efforts, misguided or not, to put at least a dent in it. It just takes an enormous toll on the lives of the people trying to stop it.

Michael Douglas is a new drug czar whose daughter is freebasing. Benicio Del Toro is a Mexican cop working his way up through a corrupt system. Catherine Zeta-Jones is a pregnant upper-class mother whose husband is arrested for drug trafficking after Miguel Ferrer rats him out when Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman nail him redhanded with lots of coke. Lots of other folks get involved, in the way and wind up on every side of the law.

Douglas, who I liked in "Falling Down" but has bothered me ever since he tried to be whatever he was trying to be in the commercials for "The Ghost and the Darkness," isn't bothersome here as he plays to type as the upper-class father oblivious to his family's problems. Zeta-Jones, who I've tended to dislike after "The Haunting" and "Entrapment" yet perfectly nailed the mysterious-bordering-on-annoying Charlie in "High Fidelity," is pretty good here, although the transition from innocent mother to substitute kingpin isn't all that well portrayed. Erika Christensen is good as Douglas' daughter driven to drugs for reasons she isn't even aware of, although they most likely stem from absent parents and general disgust with the world - but part of the message here is that drug users are not always perfectly defined by fucked up family lives, abuse, peer pressure, whatever. Sometimes, the reasons are inexplicable and maybe even non-existent... they just do it, and there's not always "something that could have been done to prevent it."

Javier (Del Toro) and his partner Manolo (Jacob Vargas) are the most interesting story to follow, though, since it provides a side of the story not often detailed here - what happens in Mexico - and it's handily illustrated by sepia tones and more jostle-riffic cinematography, although what the message of THAT is supposed to be is anyone's guess. Maybe it means crossing the border automatically disturbs equilibrium and that the national color of Mexico is AmberVision. They operate within a system that's corrupt all the way to the top, as the position they have closest to America's 'drug czar' is working for one of the large cartels, trying to put all the others out of business, and there's always the looming threat of death by retaliation no matter WHAT move a cop makes. Javier is just trying to play by the ill-defined rules and ally with the most powerful side until his partner gets mixed up with the DEA, and he's forced into doing what's "right."

Cheadle and Guzman also make an entertaining story as the undercover cops on the front lines, babysitting their star witness Ferrer (who I will always remember as 'The Guy Who Built Robocop') as they wait for trial and try to keep him from getting assassinated before he can testify. It's depressing to see the futility in their eyes as they keep up the 'witty cop' banter. They know it's a never-ending battle uphill, they know every little arrest they make is just going to give some other bastard an opportunity to take the newly vacated position... but they just keep going. It's a wise choice to never have a scene where the cops have 'crises of conscience' where they talk about this hopelessness... the only guy that brings it up is Ferrer, and they shoot it down immediately... yet it's painfully obvious that they know it's the truth.

It's a long film, though, and despite all the good things about it, it's still a big drug film, and I've been sick of drug movies for a long time now. True, it's a careful, equilateral study of the actual issue of drugs, rather than having it gratuitously tossed into a flick to make it 'edgy,' but this is the reason I wasn't 'blown away' by it or anything. There are some great moments and interesting issues raised by the film, but a lot of it tends to feel like some sort of news program 'dramatization,' and the story seemed to be a couple of steps away from dragging most of the time.

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