Sunday 14 May 2023

Netflix And Chill: Traffic (2000)

Based on a TV series that I sadly never saw (yet), Traffic is another excellent ensemble film from Steven Soderbergh that allows him to play to his strengths aka his ability to marry the right cast to an intelligent script and present everything in a way that is both grounded and also cine-literate and full of memorable moments.

In case you couldn't guess from the title, Traffic is all about the drug trade, showing how it affects a number of key figures in both America and Mexico. Danger and death are never too far from people on the front line (played by the likes of Benicio Del Toro, Don Cheadle, and Luis Guzmán), getting a proper handle on the situation may prove too difficult for someone making moves politically (Michael Douglas), and those high up the "food chain" (such as characters played by Thomas Milian and Steven Bauer) might prove impossible to bring back down to within reaching distance of the not-so-long arms of the law.

Everyone I have just mentioned does a great job here, but the highlights are undoubtedly, for me, Del Toro, Douglas, and Catherine Zeta-Jones (playing the wife of a businessman arrested for drug dealing). Cheadle and Guzmán work brilliantly together, and they have a number of scenes with the brilliant Miguel Ferrer, who surprises nobody by turning up onscreen to spend some time being . . . brilliant. Erika Christensen has the job of showing how drugs can easily take hold of the kids, helped along by her unfortunate association with a young sleazebag played by Topher Grace. Some characters may figure more prominently than others, but everyone plays their part in showing the risks and rewards, and the outward ripple effect, of the drug supply chain.

Soderbergh has a savvy script by Stephen Gaghan to work with, and he treats it well. It may seem like an obvious gimmick to give the differing story strands a basic kind of colour coding, but it certainly helps to keep viewers orientated as we jump from one scenario to another, looking out for important developments and points of interconnection (not necessarily in the standard narratives or character moments, but more often in the methodology and the shaping of spiderwebbing plans).

Despite all of the positives on display here, Traffic could have easily failed if it had at any point started to feel like some piece of scaremongering or propaganda. Thanks to Gaghan and Soderbergh, it never does. There's one hard truth at the heart of this, and it's not one that everyone will appreciate. The war on drugs was never won, and probably never will be. A profitable drug economy is like a viral video of some majorly embarrassing incident. No matter how much people hope it will disappear, it's only going to spread and worm into the global consciousness of anyone who gets wind of it.

One or two scenes in the third act notwithstanding, bits of melodrama that feel unnecessary and a bit overdone, this is a strong contender for Soderbergh's finest film, and those brief moments aren't enough to stop it from being something I consider pretty perfect. I'd even say that it's a film vying for a very high position in the respective filmographies of every main cast member. Smart, thrilling, equal parts thought-provoking and entertaining, Traffic is a film that everyone should watch at least once. And I'm sure many will make time for repeat viewings.


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