'Traffic' spins gripping tales of the drug wars

Some of today's most interesting directors are making their mark on 2000 just before the calendar runs out.

Steven Soderbergh has already graced the year with "Erin Brockovich," the most politically alert crowd-pleaser in recent memory. Now he's back with Traffic, a more abrasive commentary on ills of contemporary life. The new picture will probably draw smaller audiences, but may figure even more prominently in the upcoming Academy Awards race, given its impressive ensemble cast and the imaginative visual style it uses to explore its complex subject from a variety of perspectives.

That subject is drugs - or more precisely, the so-called war on drugs that the United States government has been waging for many a long and controversial year. Although its highly dramatic screenplay is based on a British television series, "Traffic" amounts to a 140-minute commentary on American efforts to stem the tide of illicit drugs through a wide assortment of varyingly effective means, from infiltration of the narcotics underworld to treatment of drug-dependent individuals.

This doesn't mean "Traffic" is an exercise in punditry. Quite the opposite, it's one of the year's most suspenseful, gripping, and sometimes disturbing films. It begins near the Mexican border, where a Mexican cop (Benicio Del Toro) and his close partner (Jacob Vargas) are working under a military commander (Tomas Milian) whose methods are as ruthless as the enemy he wants to conquer.

The action soon switches to the United States, where a Midwestern judge (Michael Douglas) has been chosen as federal drug czar - a job he's proud to take, even though it consumes so much time that it hampers his ability to stay close with family members, one of whom (Erika Christensen) is a teenager with a hankering for narcotics.

On the West Coast, meanwhile, two officers on the drug beat (Luis Guzman, Don Cheadle) monitor the life of a wealthy woman (Catherine Zeta-Jones) whose incarcerated husband (Steven Bauer) has become a pawn in a set of dangerous intrigues.

These are only some of the characters in Soderbergh's web of plots and subplots, which run on parallel but interrelated tracks throughout the movie.

Some are more compelling than others, and portions of the action seem a bit confused, as if a too-long running time had caused necessary story material to remain on the cutting-room floor. Sentimentality creeps in a little, as well. But the tension rarely lets up, and the film's thoughtfulness is a welcome relief from the season's general run of fluff and fantasy.

And then there's the acting, much of which ranks with the best we've seen all year. Soderbergh has a gift for eliciting strong performances - he launched his career with "Sex, Lies & Videotape," a starmaking vehicle if ever there was one - and he hasn't lost his touch. Douglas gives one of his most crisply etched portrayals, Miguel Ferrer and Amy Irving do first-rate work, and Del Toro reconfirms his growing reputation as one of today's most talented actors.

Another director drawn to ambitious subjects is Michael Winterbottom, who has explored geopolitical conflict in "Welcome to Sarajevo" and British social problems in "Wonderland," among other projects. Five years after his "Jude" brought a Thomas Hardy tale ("Jude the Obscure") to the screen with uneven results, he returns to Hardy territory with The Claim, transporting the English author's 1886 novel "The Mayor of Casterbridge" to the American frontier in the 19th century.

Hardy's engrossing book centers on a self-made man whose privileged existence masks two secrets. One is a sordid episode in his past. The other is an unstable personality that threatens to reemerge when life and love stop going entirely his way, which happens when his protege turns into a rival.

Like a number of Hardy's novels, the story takes place in the fictional county of Wessex, and it's not entirely clear why Winterbottom has moved it to California in 1869, changing its wealthy grain merchant to a gold-rush tycoon and its young Scottish upstart to a railroad surveyor.

There's nothing automatically wrong with such changes - think of all the Shakespeare plays and grand operas done in modern dress, for instance - but Winterbottom's treatment seems more superficially clever than genuinely heartfelt, despite the eclectic cast he's assembled (Peter Mullan, Sarah Polley, Wes Bentley, Nastassja Kinski, Milla Jovovich) and the care he's taken with historical details.

Whether you enjoy "The Claim" or not may depend on how you like the movie's most notable quality: its startling resemblance to Robert Altman's eccentric western "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," which shares its finely tuned cinematography, its chilly vision of the Old West, and its odd reluctance to let the characters' emotions rise to the surface. Altman is a great filmmaker, but he may be too powerful an influence for a more modest talent like Winterbottom to absorb.

"The Claim" is a clone in many ways, and moviegoers may prefer to revisit the real Altman article courtesy of their local video store.

"Traffic," rated R, contains violence, vulgarity, and much drug-related material. "The Claim," rated R, contains sex and violence.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.