out of 5
Brilliantly-made, impeccably acted, already tipped for Oscars – this is easily one of the best films you’ll see this year.
If the title sounds familiar, you may remember the 1980s Channel 4 series Traffik on which this is based. However, director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan have done a terrific job of condensing three inter-linked plot-lines into a coherent and highly-watchable two-and-a-half
hours that takes a long hard look at the so-called ‘War On Drugs’, from both sides, and in doing so, have come up with one of the best films of the year. And yes, we know it’s only January!!
The plot strands (without giving too much away) focus on four sets of characters: Benicio Del Toro's noble Tijuana cop; Catherine Zeta-Jones' upper-class wife, appalled when her husband is suddenly arrested for drug-trafficking; The Great Don Cheadle and The Equally Great Luis Guzman (you’ll know their faces) as two drug cops and Michael Douglas' newly-appointed drug czar, who has to come to terms with his own daughter Erika Christensen's drug habit.
These strands are all woven together beautifully, using different colour filters for each one (a washed-out yellow for Tijuana, a coldly impersonal blue for Washington, bright colours for San Diego and so on).
Remarkably, as well as coaxing top-notch performances from all his actors, Soderbergh did all the camera-work himself, dubbing this his ‘$49 million dollar Dogma movie’.
It's the acting, really, that turns this into something extraordinary - Michael Douglas shows that The Wonder Boys wasn't a one-off, and that he's actually capable of some top-class acting (you can bet Kevin Costner and Harrison Ford are both kicking themselves for passing on this).
Douglas isn't the only stand-out though - a six-month pregnant Zeta Jones is both radiant and impressive as Elena, and Del Toro is just breath-taking, seemingly getting progressively better and better with each movie he does.
He’s already won a Golden Globe and looks certain to be nominated for an Oscar next month.
However, it’s Guzman and Cheadle who steal the show - how can you not love a movie that casts them as dedicated drug cops (both
dreaming of the perfect bust: "white people") – they should be given their own TV show, immediately!
Don Cheadle & Luis Guzman: Action Heroes - that's how good this film is!
There are great performances from the kids in this film too, especially Erika Christensen as Douglas' daughter (who bears a more than passing resemblance to Julia Stiles), but also from Topher Grace (one of the stars of 'That 70s Show', currently on C5). There’s also great support from both Dennis Quaid (as Elena’s slimy lawyer) and Albert Finney in a cameo as Douglas’ superior.
Soderbergh’s choice to shoot the film neo-documentary-style (what he calls ‘run and gun’ style), using mostly hand-held camera-work was inspired, as it has the effect of throwing you into the action (particularly during the drug cops scenes), as well as creating an intimate atmosphere in the domestic sequences.
Soderbergh also pulls off two other stylistic flourishes: a scene
played against the tele-typing of a news report discussing the scene, and a bizarre, almost Fellini-esque sequence featuring a helicopter that looks like the cameraman showing off, but which works really well anyway.
In short, this is unmissable entertainment – the perfect antidote to the
usual Hollywood slew of brainless blockbusters and proof that, yes,
Hollywood CAN still make great films.
If it doesn’t win Oscars come March there is, officially, no justice. Highly recommended.