(director: Steven Soderbergh; screenwriters: Stephen Gaghan/based on “Traffik” created by Simon Moore, originally produced by Carnival Films for Channel 4 Television (Britain); cinematographer: Peter Andrews (actually the pseudonym of Steven Soderbergh); editor: Stephen Mirrione; cast: Michael Douglas (Robert Wakefield), Don Cheadle (Montel Gordon), Benicio Del Toro (Javier Rodriguez), Luis Guzman (Ray Castro), Dennis Quaid (Arnie Metzger), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Helena Ayala), Steven Bauer (Carlos Ayala), Erika Christensen (Caroline Wakefield), Clifton Collins Jr. (Francisco Flores), Miguel Ferrer (Eduardo Ruiz), Topher Grace (Seth Abrahms), Amy Irving (Barbara Wakefield), Tomas Milian (General Arturo Salazar), Marisol Padilla Sanchez (Ana Sanchez), Jacob Vargas (Manolo Sanchez), Albert Finney (Chief of Staff), D.W. Moffett (Jeff Sheridan); Runtime: 147; USA Films; 2000)

“The film soft pedals any advocacy for legalizing drugs and offers no hard-hitting critique of current policies, except to say it doesn’t work.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A big, loopy, overlong, dullish docudrama-style thriller, about the losing battle of the ‘War on Drugs.’ It is at times more preachy than dramatic taking the point of view that something has to be done about the drug situation but not saying what, only that what’s been tried has not worked and the youth of America are being unduly harmed by drugs. This film calls for a greater emphasis on treatment programs and on mutual cooperation between the Mexican government and the DEA and more funds to support the effort against a criminal element that has more money, resources, and better weapons than the good guys. There’s nothing new presented: same old answers, same old film, but this one takes itself more serious because of the talented cast and the formulaic way this story was adapted from a Simon Moore work, which was scripted by Stephen Gaghan and directed with precision but in an uninspiring way by Steven Soderbergh. It first ran as a mini-series on British TV in 1989, a medium it probably would be the most logical place to view this updated ambitious version. The film was devoid of real emotion and played as if the new drug czar was on Larry King piously expounding his beliefs and the drug lords, drug dealers, and drug addicts were not only slimes and disturbed people, but bores.

The film, to tell its story as coherently as possible (which it manages to do), will criss-cross between southern California, different parts of Mexico, the slums and the rich suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio, and Washington, DC. But it centers itself around conservative Ohio State Supreme Court Justice Bob Wakefield (Michael Douglas), who will be the new drug czar. At each location the characters change and even though they might never meet they are connected by their interest in drugs: either to use or sell, or by their efforts to put it off the streets.

The complex multistory presents an overview of the current drug culture, as the drug czar’s eyes will widen as he learns about the extent of the problem he is facing. The film’s three principal storylines hope to pigeonhole the problem as seen from both sides of the border of law enforcement and from the point of view of earnest law enforcement officials and those who greedily traffic in drugs; and, ultimately, from the direct impact it has on a white, upper-class, suburban family.

The film opens as Tijuana-based cops, Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas), halt a drug shipment on a desert road but are stopped by army general Salazar (Tomas Milian), who seizes the stash.

Bob Wakefield will learn soon after his appointment how vulnerable he is to the drug problem, as his high achiever sullen 16-year-old daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen), is getting into heavy drugs (free-basing cocaine) with her creepy, preppie boyfriend (Topher Grace) and some of her classmates. This comes to light after one of their acquaintances overdoses and is brought to the hospital. Bob has lost touch with her by being so busy at work and his haggard wife (Amy Irving), an experimental drug user herself as a college student, can’t relate with her. They are both lost at what to do until Bob gets her into a Step Program, involving group therapy as a treatment; but, he is relocated in the Beltway and can’t follow through on how Caroline’s treatment is going.

DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) acting on a tip are conducting a sting operation on San Diego–based, middle-level dealer Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer), whom they hope will lead them to local drug kingpin Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer). His pregnant, haut monde wife, Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), has been kept ignorant of the real nature of her husband’s business. After the successful sting operation and the arrest of her husband, she turns out to be as ruthless as he is and easily gets involved in trying to fix things so that hubby gets out even if it takes murdering the witness who is ready to testify against him.

Once all the stories are in place, the film shows how human frailty plays a part in the corruption of various individuals. Helena will do anything to stay rich, as she hires a hit man (Clifton Collins Jr.) to take care of Ruiz. Carlos’s snakelike lawyer (Dennis Quaid), who tries to steal three million dollars from his boss while he is behind bars, realizes what will happen to him when found out but still does it because he craves what the drug kingpin has. Policeman Manolo succumbs to being bribed by the drug lords as he is overwhelmed by the money he sees passing hands and does something he would never have done, if not tempted.

The film wraps up neatly, tying up all the tragic ongoing drug war stories. There was no tension in the air when the drug czar delivers his White House press conference address in a disbelieving tone about how his office will issue a new “10-point plan” to fight drugs. Wakefield has become too demoralized by what has happened to his family and realizes his words sound hollow, offering the public nothing new. So he asks out loud, “How can you wage a war against your own family?” The film soft pedals any advocacy for legalizing drugs and offers no hard-hitting critique of current policies, except to say it doesn’t work. It seems to have safely placed itself in the middle of the argument, not taking sides (a rather wishy-washy way to leave things).

I don’t know what could be said other than this was a competently made film, the actors were forceful in their roles, with the plucky performance by the conflicted honest cop Benicio Del Toro outshining the others; and, for some comic relief, there was some amusing dialogue between Cheadle and Guzman. The film had a nice look as cinematographer Soderbergh aka Peter Andrews, has given the film a look of urgency. Soderbergh uses a handheld camera and works with different tinctures of desertlike yellow-orange shades and icy blue lighting to get a better view of his subjects and their hard-boiled tale.