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"If there is a war on drugs, then many of our family members are the enemy. And I don't know how you wage war on your own family."
Robert Wakefield

A 2000 crime drama film directed by Steven Soderbergh, Traffic was adapted from the 1989 British Channel 4 miniseries Traffik. With an All-Star Cast headed by Michael Douglas, his future wife Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Benicio del Toro in an Academy Award-winning performance, Traffic also won three other Oscars, including Best Director, only missing out on Best Picture to Gladiator.

In Mexico, officer Javier Rodriguez (del Toro) is assigned to investigate the drug trade by one General Salazar (Tomas Milian). Meanwhile, in Washington, federal judge Robert Wakefield (Douglas) is appointed the new drug czar just as he learns his daughter (Erika Christensen) is an addict herself. In San Diego, two DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzmán) finally arrest drug kingpin Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer). Ayala's wife, Helena (Zeta-Jones), upon learning of her husband's true profession, takes action to ensure his freedom and her own financial security. As more secrets and lies are revealed, these characters learn that the war on drugs isn't as straightforward as it seems.


The movie has many layers of Truth in Television, being a highly dramatized amalgamation of the lives of real people and very common or highly plausible events.

Not to be confused with the '60s-'70s British rock group of the same name. Or with Jacques Tati's 1971 film Trafic. Or Ralph Bakshi's 1974 animated film Heavy Traffic. Or the 2017 suspense thriller Traffik.

This film provides examples of:

  • Amoral Attorney: Arnie is about as sleazy as it gets.
  • As Himself: Senators Harry Reid (D-NV), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), and Governon Bill Weld all make minor appearances in the movie.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Each storyline ends with some combination of hope and tragedy.
  • Black-and-Grey Morality: One of the key themes of the film.
  • Bulletproof Vest: Somewhat realistically done, as Don Cheadle's character gets shot at point blank and is momentarily winded. However, he's up and running again not too long after.
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  • Bury Your Gays: The assassin approaching Del Toro's character in a gay bar leads to his Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique. He eventually gets killed by the cartel during a failed hit for ratting out their members after torture. This was also the sole gay character in the film.
  • Call-Back: The last scene is a call back to Javier's comment about wanting somewhere safe for kids to play baseball at night.
  • The Cameo: Salma Hayek has one brief scene as a drug lord's wife.
  • The Cartel: Two of them, in fact.
  • The Cobbler's Children Have No Shoes: Wakefield is tasked with fighting the US war on drugs, even as his own daughter spirals into addiction. He eventually acknowledges this, saying he can't make war on his own family, and it appears he will resign.
  • Color Wash: Different color palettes are used for different storylines. Those taking place in Mexico are shaded yellow-brown, while the Wakefield storyline primarily in Cincinnati is cool blue. The Ayala/DEA storyline has normal coloration.
  • Colour-Coded for Your Convenience: Each of the three interlinking stories has its own location-based color cast.
  • Culture Clash: The Mexican law enforcement are shown to have a decidedly more brutal approach to the war on drugs than the Americans. Wakefield is visibly shocked when after he asks how they approach drug treatment, Salazar dismissively replies: "Addicts treat themselves. They OD and there's one less to deal with."note  It's also said law enforcement in Mexico is really a more "entrepreneurial" profession (i.e. the police take bribes, as the film portrays-even the good ones).
  • The Dead Have Names: Montel tells Helena the name of his dead partner during their final confrontation.
  • Descent into Addiction: The primary plotline in the Wakefield story centers on Wakefield's daughter Caroline, who develops an addiction to cocaine after being introduced to it by her boyfriend. Her parents put her in rehab, but she escapes and resorts to theft and prostitution to fund her habit. At the end of the film she's back in rehab and seems more committed to recovering.
  • Dig Your Own Grave: Both (comparatively) honest Mexican cops are made to do this.
  • Dirty Cop: More than one, including a general, who is largely based on José de Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, a former division general in the Mexican army who was head of anti-drug interdiction in Mexico, making him ideally poised to aid traffickers. Like the film character, he was in bed with the Juarez Cartel, letting them operate unimpeded in return for hefty bribes.
  • Drugs Are Bad: The main character that is seen to be a drug user ends up appearing to prostitute herself to get drugs.
  • Enlightened Self-Interest: Manolo does attempt to expose the general, but does so for a reward.
  • External Combustion: Ray is killed by a car bomb.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Downplayed but present with Manolo, especially given his apology to Javier for Getting them into this.
  • Four Lines, All Waiting: Three storylines play out.
  • Functional Addict:
    • Seth, Caroline's boyfriend, appears to be this. Or maybe he's simply a recreational user who's avoided getting hooked.
    • Manolo, del Toro's character's partner, is subtly implied to be this.
    • Wakefield himself is accused of alcoholism by his wife.
  • Gayngster: The assassin, Frankie Flowers. But he's definitely better off than his girlfriend.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: At first the assassin is violently tortured, and then is "rescued" from his captors by the corrupt general, the torturer's boss. He is given a sumptuous meal and a bottle of wine, finally releasing the desired information after being told "In Vino Veritas".
  • Hoist by Their Own Petard: Arnie steals the money that Carlos had left for his wife and tries to use this improvishment to seduce her. If he had just given Helena the money then she would have had the protection she needed and probably wouldn't have gone to such lengths to break him out of jail, with Carlos seeking revenge against Arnie for his betrayal immediately afterwards.
  • Hyperlink Story: Three interlocking stories.
  • Inherent in the System: The war on drugs.
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: The assassin is given one.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • Carlos Ayala gets away with everything, the key witness against him having been assassinated on the day he was to give testimony. But Montel hasn't given up trying to get him.
    • Seth suffers no consequences from getting his girlfriend hooked on crack.
  • Knight in Sour Armour: Montel to a tee.
    "The worst part about you, Monty, is that you realize the futility of what you're doing and you do it anyway."
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: The screenplay boasted 143 speaking parts and arguably more than a dozen main characters.
  • Mama Bear: Helena. As ruthlessly as she goes about it, it's obvious that the main reason she's trying to get her husband out of jail is so that he can protect her and their son — the scene where he's threatened is the moment she realizes how dire the situation is.
  • The Man: Montel and Ray briefly discuss wanting to bring down The Man when working on busting Carlos:
    Ray: I have actually dreamt about this, about busting the top people, the rich people, WHITE people!
  • Married to the Job: Wakefield. It amplifies the problems with Caroline's drug addiction, which he realizes at the end when he steps down from his new czar job to support her.
  • Meal Ticket: When a desperate Helena goes to visit her husband's lawyer Arnie, he hints that he could make her money problems go away if she married him. Given the expression on her face and her earlier conversation with her husband (wherein she vowed to never be poor, no matter what it took), she's at least considering it, no matter her personal squick factor.
  • Moral Guardians: Wakefield's job is to be this, regarding drugs, for an entire country. Meanwhile, however, his own house is not quite in order.
  • Noodle Implements: A variation of the Ginger Beer Trick variety of this trope is used with a Coke bottle.
  • Not So Different: Wakefield's wife points out that, for all his anti-drug invective, he still drinks enough that he could not unjustifiably be called an alcoholic.
  • Open-Minded Parent: Wakefield's wife, Barbara, admits to knowing about Caroline's drug use and thought it would be beneficial to allow her to experiment. This backfires badly when it becomes apparent that Caroline winds up addicted.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: Ayala has given his slimy lawyer Arnie several million dollars to give to Helena in the event that he (Ayala) is arrested. Ayala's arrested but Arnie makes no mention of the money to Helena, even going so far as to tell her he's tapped out when she asks for money. He then hints that he could solve all her financial problems by marrying her if Ayala is sent away for good. After Ayala is freed and two men with guns show up in Arnie's office, it's not hard to imagine what happens.
  • Pregnant Badass: Helena becomes this once she adapts to her situation and realizes what's at stake.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: When a critic commented that it seemed unrealistic that the daughter's high school record was almost perfect when she was taking drugs, screenwriter Stephen Gaghan pointed out that the high school record in the movie was his and that he had been abusing drugs at the time.
  • The Remake: Originally a British miniseries, revolving around heroin from Pakistan rather than cocaine from Mexico. The movie itself was eventually remade by the USA Network as a three part miniseries.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: Early on a major drug player who is dismissed as dead. It turns out he just got plastic surgery.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The drug lord who is thought to have died in a surgery but turns out to be alive is based on the drug lord Amado Carrillo Fuentes, "The Lord of the Skies", who died in 1997 while undergoing a cosmetic surgery.
  • Sarcastic Confession: When the assassin masquerading as room service arrives at the informant's hotel room, he announces himself as "Mafia!"
  • Smuggling with Dolls: This trope gets taken this to the logical extreme when Helena, left running the empire after Carlos is arrested, hits on a clever way of smuggling cocaine across the border: make dolls out of cocaine.
  • Those Two Guys: Montel and Ray. Leads to Mood Whiplash when Ray is blown up by Frankie Flowers' car bomb.
  • Throwing Out the Script: Wakefield interrupts himself in the middle of a carefully prepared, approved speech to make an emotional (though vague) reference to his drug-addicted daughter.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Formerly sheltered housewife Helena takes to drug-running quite well.
  • Tropaholics Anonymous: Caroline goes to this two different times. The second time, she is more sincere.
  • Undercover Cop Reveal: Almost. Monty, Ray, and a female agent are monitoring Helena and her son incognito when she's at the beach. One of her husband's unpaid business associates walks up, grabs the child, and threatens Helena. The three quickly agree that if the man runs off with or attempts to harm the child, they'll all break cover and rescue him. Fortunately, it doesn't come to that.
  • Van in Black: Played with. Helena, wife to a drug dealer who is in custody and under investigation, brings lemonade to the cops keeping an eye on her house.
  • What You Are in the Dark: Ayala did not know that her husband was a drug dealer and was horrified. But when push comes to shove she chooses to embrace her husband's choices as she refuses to let her children grow-up with poverty. She ends up revealing that she is just as bloodthirsty and cold as most in the drug trade.


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