When once asked to define the postmodern condition, the American critic Dana Polan characterised it as a culture turning over so rapidly that those who vote for Academy Awards can these days remember only the last few blockbuster movies that have been rammed down their throats.
Steven Soderbergh's Traffic is the latest American film to benefit from this amnesiac buzz. Judging by the wildly honorific quotes splashed over the promotional campaign, it seems that many American reviewers are so starved for any quality product – and so clueless about where to look for it – that they are willing to talk up even a slightly good, edgy film to high heaven.
Traffic is a modestly good movie. Its action-packed, multi-threaded plot has been compressed from several story lines in the British TV series Traffik (1989). Something has certainly been lost in the translation: a tougher sense of the global politics of the drug industry, and a more confronting set of dramatic and ethical quandries.
Soderbergh's film demands to be judged on its own terms. And it does make for
compelling viewing as it whisks between
It's on the Mexican side that the truly gripping power plays occur – between General Salazar (Thomas Milian), a brutal lawman with a hidden agenda, drug dealer Francisco Flores (Clifton Collins, Jr.), and two cops desperately trying to play the game and stay alive, Javier (Benicio Del Toro) and Manolo (Jacob Vargas).
The third major thread in the film concerns a pampered wife, Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who suddenly finds herself having to negotiate a criminal underworld once her husband, Carlos (Steven Bauer), is arrested, and the two cops on her tail, Montel (Don Cheadle) and Ray (Luis Guzman). Those who remember Traffik will quickly see how much Soderbergh pulls his punches in the depiction of Helena's transformation.
Although pretending to tackle a hard subject, Traffic merely flirts with its political and moral themes. Soderbergh and writer Stephen Gaghan speak of the film's cohering idea as control – and the lack of it. But this could be said of virtually any crime film, especially those better examples of the genre that Traffic evokes through its casting and style, such as Scarface (1983) and Mixed Blood (1985).
Soderbergh doubles here as his own Director of Photography (under the name of Peter Andrews). The visual mannerisms he introduces into the telling of this tale become completely maddening. Doubting a contemporary audience's ability to tell the difference between the different sub-plots (or between Mexico and the U.S.), Soderbergh uses a laborious colour coding scheme which is sheer hell on the eyeballs – and pointless as well as useless.
Soderbergh is one of many mainstream filmmakers who has recently come under the trendy sway of the Dogme school. So Traffic is replete with hand-held shots and jerky jump-cuts even in the middle of the most banal conversations. The result may not be as irritatingly slick as his overrated Out of Sight (1998), but it still grates unnecessarily.
The Soderbergh I prefer – expressed in films like King of the Hill (1993) and Erin Brokovich (1999) – places more trust in the inherent qualities of the actors and the story. Not all of this talent has deserted him here: what makes the film enjoyable is the space he gives to such fine performers as Del Toro and Milian. With Del Toro, especially, one senses a gravity in the character that extends beyond the occasionally facile moves of the script.
© Adrian Martin March 2001