2000, Movie, R, 140 mins


Probably the largest-scale film about drug trafficking since THE POPPY IS ALSO A FLOWER (1966), this thriller focuses on disparate families on both sides of the U.S./Mexican border as they're touched by the narcotics trade. Inspired by a six-hour, U.K. miniseries called Traffik (1989), this examination of the cocaine business is intelligently scripted by Stephen Gaghan and deftly directed by Steven Soderbergh. Three main narrative threads intersect and branch off as the film unfolds. In Mexico, straight-arrow cop Javier (Benicio Del Toro) and his partner, Manolo (Jacob Vargas), join forces with General Arturo Salazar (Tomas Milian), who claims he wants to smash the big-time drug cartel run by the Obregon brothers, Juan (Benjamin Bratt) and Pablo (Jsu Garcia). Javier quickly begins to suspect Salazar's motives, but can't easily extricate himself from Salazar's circle. In San Diego, DEA agents Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) and Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) bust mid-level dealer Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer) and persuade him to roll over on bigwig Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), whose prosperous, suburban life is paid for by drugs. Ayala's hugely pregnant wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) must make hard decisions about her future in the wake of her husband's arrest. And in Ohio, State Supreme Court Justice Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), newly appointed as the country's drug czar, is blissfully unaware that his daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen), is freebasing with her boyfriend (Topher Grace). Together, these stories paint a portrait of the drug trade from virtually every point of view: Street-level dealers, junkies, international traffickers, policy makers, cops, undercover agents, judges, casual users, politicians and customs agents. Soderbergh gives the film a harsh but stylized look, manipulating color (scraped-looking sepia for the Southwestern sequences, icy blue for Ohio and Washington, DC), and using available light and handheld camera. Though meticulously researched, well acted and filled with striking moments, the movie ultimately feels oddly disconnected, perhaps because decades of magazine, newspaper and TV coverage of America's drug war may have exhausted interest in even as astute a treatment as this. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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