A hard-line judge is selected as the President’s new general in the war on drugs. Front-line cops in Mexico and the US go after the small-time distributors and try to make cases against the sources of the drugs. A pampered wife, pregnant with her second child, finds out that her husband’s legitimate businesses are just a front for his real import — cocaine. The judge’s teenage daughter becomes a heroin addict.
Director Steven Soderbergh (“Erin Brockovich,” “Sex, Lies, and Videotape”) ably keeps these stories on track, cutting back and forth to let them provide context and contrast for each other, and using different color pallattes to help keep them straight. There are some good lines: a character compares efforts to cut off the drug supply to a game of “Whack-a-Mole” and when a wealthy high school kid overdoses, one of the other teenagers at the party says, “He can’t die on the f**ing floor–his parents are in Barbados!” And a cop notes that “In Mexico, law enforcement is an entrepreneurial activity.”
Despite a first-rate all-star cast, the movie feels flat and a little formulaic, almost like one of those old “Dragnet” episodes about the dangers of drugs. The script moves the characters around like chess pieces. Packing so many stories in so little time requires a lot of narrative short-cuts like coincidences and stereotypes. The Zeta Jones character switches from innocent and doe-eyed to commanding and vicious faster than you can say “Michael Corleone.” Individual scenes have some tension and some fine performances (especially by Benecio del Toro and Don Cheadle as cops), but the overall impact is muted.
Parents should know that the movie has everything that triggers an R rating: violence (including the death of major characters, murder, torture, and a teenage overdose), explicit sex (including the judge’s daughter trading sex for drugs), and strong language. Characters betray each other and there are intense family scenes. However, this is at its heart a morality tale, and all of the R-rated material is in the service of the overall anti-drug message.
Families who see this movie should use it as an opportunity to talk frankly about drugs, both their own views on individual drug use and the impact that the drug business has on the community and the country. As teenagers what they think about the way the judge and his wife responded to his daughter’s drug use, and about his decision at the end of the movie. Was it the right one? Why did the drug dealer’s wife decide to become involved in his business? Did the movie make you feel differently about the role that illegal drugs play in the lives of people around us? When the judge asks the staff for new ideas, the response is silence. What should the next person to hold the anti-drug czar job do?
Families who like this movie should see some of the other performances by its outstanding cast, including Del Toro (who won an Oscar for this role) in “Snatch” and “The Usual Suspects” (both for mature audiences) and Cheadle in “A Lesson Before Dying.” Families who enjoy this movie might like to see the English miniseries that inspired it, “Traffik.”