Loosely interrelated stories examine different facets of America's "war on drugs" in director Steven Soderbergh's impressive ensemble drama.
Based partly on the 1989 British TV miniseries "Traffik," this sweeping epic follows various characters involved one way or another in narcotics smuggling, including a newly appointed U.S. drug czar (Michael Douglas) who gradually realizes his own daughter (Erika Christensen) is an addict; an honorable Mexican cop (Benicio Del Toro) caught between rival cocaine cartels; and a pair of DEA agents (Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman) who nail a local drug baron, leaving the trafficker's innocent wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) in a desperate jam.
With a dozen or so sizable roles, "Traffic" has more juicy acting opportunities than two or three ordinary films, and the high-powered cast seems to relish every moment. Of the whole stellar bunch, it's the De Niro-ishly intense Del Toro ("The Usual Suspects") who manages to make the strongest impression as a man trying to do the right thing in a thoroughly corrupt system. Other standouts include the always-watchable Cheadle (Soderbergh's "Out of Sight"), a commanding Douglas (in the role Harrison Ford must be kicking himself for turning down) and Cuban-born European star Tomas Milian as a fiendish Mexican general.
Soderbergh bounces triumphantly from "Erin Brockovich" to this gripping work, which seems likely to stand for some time as the definitive dramatic film on the subject. Rather than simplify the drug wars into a good-vs.-evil conflict in the manner of most conventional thrillers, he and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan embrace the complexity of a problem that crosses national, economic and cultural barriers, defying easy solutions. Shooting the three main sections of the story in distinctive visual styles helps viewers sort through the various plot strands, while the decision to stage a major chunk of the action in Spanish gives the Mexican material an authority it otherwise couldn't have had.
Just say yes to "Traffic," one of the best films of the year.