Catherine is a hit in Traffic

by ALEXANDER WALKER, Evening Standard

The rush hour in Steven Soderbergh's Traffic lasts 147 minutes. But never jams. It takes that time to cover the land mass of the USA and Mexico and its social classes.

Up-scale or down-market, in Mexican flyspeck border towns or affluent Georgetown mansions, the common connection is - the connection. Sex in this sensate society isn't the great leveller. Nor is death, or only sometimes. What truly unifies America today, says the film, is drugs.

Seldom has there been a bigger picture of a nation willing its own corruption - and probable extinction - all in the name of the feel-good factor.

A 'mainline' movie in both senses - production and addiction - Traffic itself, commendably, isn't a feel-good one.

But there are a multitude of revelatory stories springing out of performances, characters, dialogue or social setting and recalling what American moviemaking was like in its entertaining but serious prime - dramatising moral issues for the people in the cinema.

Once it's over, you feel drained and exhausted. It may cost the film some of its box office simply because, although it builds its tensions thrillingly, and never takes its foot off the accelerator powering its multiple plots, its ending denies us that currently fashionable placebo called closure. The fate of people in it is open-ended - except, of course, for the dead ones.

The title appears, almost shyly, in one corner of the screen. Then, abruptly, we're pitched into the daily chore of two Tijuana-based cops (Benicio Del Toro and Jacob Vargas) staking out the drug runners' cross-border route into the US.

The two cops intercept a coke consignment, then find themselves headed off at gunpoint by General Salazar of the Mexican army, a wheezing despot whose compliments sound like the warning click of a safety catch before the explosion: 'For officers of the state police,' he sneers, 'you're very well informed.'

Salazar's cynicism, and the power of the veteran Cuban-Italian star Tomas Milian to construct a human scorpion, make him the centre of interest in a populous cast.

Salazar has a reputation as a merciless drug-buster. Over the border, his opposite number is an upright Ohio state judge, Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), being briefed by the White House chief of staff (Albert Finney) as the nation's new drug czar and accorded gratifying 'face time' with his president.

But it is soon plain the judge's integrity is matched by his naivety. What gives Stephen Gaghan's screenplay its ambiguous and intriguing subtext is the duality of Salazar and Wakefield. The judge puts his faith in high-tech surveillance; the general, in torture. The judge delivers moral homilies to send a 'message' to the enemy; the general delivers a well-placed bullet.

The law man's tour of the DEA's frontier defences is a round of gabby confabs and photo-ops; the general's normal day is a round of executions.

Wakefield is further hobbled by discovering his 16-year-old daughter (Erika Christensen) is into recreational drugs, with harder stuff in her school locker. But American family tragedies of this over-familiar kind don't hold the interest like the machiavellian Mexican general who's in on the game himself, aiding the Yankees to eliminate one drugs cartel on his home patch so as to give another the free run of the market.

In a somewhat improbable detour from his official duties, the judge turns vigilante to rescue his addicted child, then turns in his 'wage war on drugs' commission rather than wage war on his own family.

Salazar's realpolitik has the zap of ruthless reality that all the high-morality knuckle-rapping of American legality appears to lack: a pity he's the villain.

Catherine Zeta Jones plays a San Diego socialite who returns from lunching with the ladies, prattling about 'bad' cholesterol and 'good' cholesterol, to find her kingpin husband (Steven Bauer) being hauled off in handcuffs. Seems he was a big money-washer for the dealers.

His pampered - and pregnant - wife acquires the business and matching attitude. 'Send in a hit man,' she orders, when a sting operation sparked by a pair of jokey Tarantino-like undercover cops (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzmán) nails a witness (Miguel Ferrer) to testify against her hubby.

Traffic is strong on such documentary illustration, giving events an as-it-happens vividness, but dismayingly weak on conclusions.

Far from saying there are no easy answers, this biopsy of national cancer implies there are no answers at all. Flying back from a front-line inspection of the odds against him, Douglas's judge challenges his brainstorming coterie of consultants to come up with some off-the-cuff alternatives to the present policies of buckling containment. None can think of any. But the film itself does not dare think the unthinkable and cross the line on rehabilitating offenders in order to advocate a sterner solution: terminating the dealers.

Its admission that drugs are an ineradicable part of life - an escalating cause of death - may please the liberal lobby that advocates legitimising the trade. Maybe: but on this evidence, market forces require a heavier sanction in support of them than do-gooders' intentions. The death penalty once applied to those who murdered individuals. Traffic's grim panorama suggests its revival is over-due to deal with those who now murder a whole society.

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