US 2000
dir Steven Soderbergh
scr Stephen Gaghan (loosely based on TV miniseries ‘Traffik’ by Simon Moore)
cin “Peter Andrews” (i.e. Steven Soderbergh)
stars Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Don Cheadle
147 minutes

Traffic is one of the year’s big, awards-heavy critical wows, and while no masterpiece, it is a very good, intelligent picture for adults: well-intentioned, well-written, well-directed, and well-edited, niftily juggling three parallel plot lines:

In Washington, drug czar Wakefield (Douglas) prepares to take office, while simultaneously discovering his own teenage daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is sliding into crack addiction. In Mexico, honest cop Rodriguez (Del Toro) becomes entangled in the machinations of corrupt General Salazar (Tomas Milian), whose government role is roughly similar to Wakefield’s, though his tactics and motivations could hardly be more different. In San Diego, narc agents Gordon (Cheadle) and Castro (Luis Guzman) arrest kingpin Ayala (Steven Bauer), stunning his unsuspecting high-society wife Helena (Zeta-Jones), who soon realises that her family’s future depends on silencing key witness Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer)…

Traffic is the work of a confident, talented, storytelling director on a major roll – it’s only been a few months since Erin Brockovich, after all. But Soderbergh’s determination to keep busy, while understandable given the reception his films are getting, may be holding him back from realising his full potential. Traffic is an issues drama in the vein of The Insider, but with the ensemble cast and interlocking stories of Magnolia or a Robert Altman, but it falls a long way short of the dazzling euphoria those models so often evoke. Soderbergh is churning out slick, skilful entertainments, but it seems he’s working comfortably, easily, perhaps complacently, within his limitations. There’s a facility in Soderbergh’s movies that’s beguiling to watch, but after a while you wonder if there isn’t a large degree of bluff behind all that virtuosity. Is he capable of making a great movie?

There’s nothing much wrong with Traffic, of course, but there’s equally little that amazes, challenges, or even surprises, except perhaps the nicely mid-air ending which, rare for a movie these days, catches the viewer ‘on the hop.’ The most unexpected thing about the whole project is Zeta-Jones using her own, recognisably Welsh-tinged accent – though her character’s rapid transition from demure beauty to hard-nose drug baroness stretches credibility. One minute she’s mulling over duck salad, next she’s barking “Get out of the car, and shoot him in the head!”

Performances here are uniformly strong – Del Toro has attracted most attention for his excellent trilingual (Mexican/English/eyes-and-body) performance as Rodriguez, but he’s always been this good in most of his movies, way back to Fearless in 1990. Other faces are just that bit too familiar, however – the starry cameos feel gratuitious, while it’s not much of a stretch for Ferrer, say, to excel as a sweaty, smart-ass grouch, and Paul Anderson has deployed Guzman and Cheadle with much more wit and imagination.

And if the faces are too familiar, so are the scenes they act out, veering, like the whole Douglas-Christensen plot, towards melodrama: Douglas’s public change of heart during a key press conference; Ferrer sampling a potentially dodgy breakfast on the day he’s due in court; Cheadle and Guzman chewing the cud while they spy on Zeta-Jones’ house; Christensen hiding her stash in the toilet while Daddy rages outside the door – dependably dramatic scenes, but Soderbergh doesn’t do much to make them feel fresh, new or distinctive.

The problem is partly, again, down to familiarity – familiarity with Soderbergh’s style. This is the fourth time he’s used colour filters to distinguish between plot-lines, and novelty has now given way to a suspiciton that Soderbergh is patronising his audience – as if we couldn’t follow it without the filters. He should have paid more attention to the script, which isn’t without its muddy patches and ties up its various stories just a shade too neatly.

While the rapid-fire editing, natural light and hand-held cameras nicely convey a documentary, semi-improvised air, Soderbergh doesn’t really do anything startling with the techniques – Stephen Mirrione’s cutting, for instance, can’t match Annie Coates’ s terrific work on Out of Sight. The ostentatiously understated title card, plus Soderbergh’s baffling insistence on using a cinematographic pseudonym, are also troubling developments – though not as disturbing as his recent description of his next outing, an all-star remake of the 60s heist pic Ocean’s Eleven, is “a movie of no importance whatsoever.


24th January, 2001