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Green Light for 'Traffic'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 5, 2001


    'Traffic' Catherine Zeta-Jones is part of the ensemble cast of "Traffic."
(USA Films)
Benicio Del Toro, as his name suggests, is a majestic bull. An acting bull, that is, who overwhelms anyone with the sheer naivete to enter his ring. Stomps them and eviscerates them, his eyelids drooping like half-drawn blinds.

Perhaps you've stumbled into him in the unlikeliest of movies. I'm talking "Big Top Pee-wee," or the second-rate money-filching drama, "Money for Nothing," or Abel Ferrara's powerful, underrated "The Funeral."

More than likely, you know him as Fred Fenster, the mumbling guy nobody can understand in "The Usual Suspects," or Longbaugh, the confused but gutsy kidnapper in "The Way of the Gun."

But now, Del Toro has found his movie – the one that will put him on everyone's map, whether via the box office and/or onstage at the Academy Awards. He isn't just one of the many performers in "Traffic," Steven Soderbergh's sinfully watchable ensemble movie about the drug trafficking scene. He owns it.

There's a ton of strong performers in "Traffic," including Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Dennis Quaid and Don Cheadle. But as Javier Rodriguez, a Mexican policeman caught between overwhelming corruption and his granite-encased integrity, Del Toro's the best reason of all to watch the movie.

In the morally hazy world of Mexico, Rodriguez knows it practically takes infrared vision to spot the line between good and bad. It's not enough to stay clear of trouble, either. It comes looking for him, demanding support.

When Gen. Arturo Salazar (Tomas Milian), touted as Mexico's toughest anticrime fighter, invites Rodriguez and his partner Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) to join his forces, it's clear that Salazar has his own definition of winning the drug war.

Rodriguez and Sanchez had better join him or, sooner or later, face death. How Rodriguez negotiates this no-win situation is one of many, intriguing plot lines in "Traffic," which resembles "Nashville" or "Boogie Nights" in its multilayered structure.

Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, who based this on a British television miniseries of the same name, have created an often exhilarating, soup-to-nuts exposé of the world's most lucrative trade.

The movie hops omnisciently all over the NAFTA hemisphere, showing us Mexican drug cartels and upscale American drug dealers, impoverished Mexican street cops and amply funded American federal agencies.

And in the central story, "Traffic" brings the drug war tellingly home, where Ohio State Supreme Court Justice Robert Wakefield (Douglas) has just been offered the job of the nation's anti-drug czar.

Wakefield, who spends most of the movie meeting with the official players, including Salazar, federal agency heads and the president, takes even longer to realize that the drug industry hits closer to home than he ever imagined.

His teenage daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is rapidly becoming addicted to crack and heroin, thanks to her circle of young, equally affluent friends. And Wakefield's wife, Barbara (Amy Irving), who's aware of Caroline's problem, is trying to keep her husband out of the picture.

Meanwhile in San Diego, undercover DEA agents Montel Gordon (Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) are tracking Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer), a mid-level dealer who might have connections to a much bigger fish: Carl Ayala (Steven Bauer), whose trade is kept secret from his pregnant wife, Helena (Zeta-Jones).

When she realizes the truth, Helena takes decisive action to protect her children and husband, which starts with her high-priced family lawyer, Arnie Metzger (Quaid) and continues with Carl's connections over the border.

"Traffic" is better at being a movie than provoking insightful public policy. It's hardly a groundbreaking worldview, for instance, that the war on drugs benefits few of its intended beneficiaries, keeps the drug cartels in business, and forces judges to throw the book at minorities rather than their own spoiled, white children. And the central punchline – that the nation's drug czar (played by, nudge, nudge, Douglas) is meeting with federalistas while his Apple Pie daughter's freebasing down the street – is sophomoric irony, even if it has the ring of truth.

But Soderbergh and Gaghan create compelling, gloves-off drama, whether agents are facing death in some backstreet bust, or middle-class kids are anonymously dumping an OD'ing pal at the emergency room entrance. The movie's laced with mounting, silent hysteria, as if everyone is stricken with a compulsive disease to be involved in the drug trade – either as dealers, consumers, power brokers or crusaders.

The filmmakers alleviate the tension well, with passing humor. At one point, Judge Wakefield meets with real senators, including Don Nickles, Barbara Boxer and a very talkative Orrin Hatch, to discuss the tricks to Capitol Hill survival. And there's a marvelously funny, almost Abbott-and-Costello relationship between Cheadle and Guzman, as they patiently stake out their affluent targets.

What you're enjoying, in this movie, is the surprise of the next moment and the one after, as well as the narrative big picture: How these seemingly diverse (and desperate) stories eventually connnect. And then there's Rodriguez's fate, of course. Courage and conviction are commendable assets but, in the weird vagaries of the drug universe, it's a matter of dumb luck. And no matter what your final judgment of the movie, you'll find yourself following everyone's outcome with beady intensity.

"Traffic" (R, 147 minutes) – Contains pervasive drug usage and content, obscenity, violence, sexual scenes and overall emotional intensity. Area theaters.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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