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Film / Traffic (2000)

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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 American 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:

  • Artistic License – History: A minor one from Ruiz, due to his use of the present tense. During his interrogation he snarkily compares Montel and Ray to Japanese Army holdouts on Pacific islands "who think World War II's still going on". The last verified holdout was repatriated about a quarter-century prior to the film's release.
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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.
  • Dead Sidekick: Both Mexican cop Javier Rodriguez and DEA agent Gordon have to deal with a close friend and colleague being murdered.
  • 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".
  • The Guards Must Be Crazy: None of the agents protecting Ruiz are suspicious at all when someone comes to his door saying they are the mafia.
  • Guile Hero: Javier sells information to the DEA about Salazar working in conjunction with the cartel. His partner, Manolo, tries to do the exact same thing but is more careless about it and gets both himself and Javier dragged out into the desert by Salazar's own men to be killed; however only Manolo is killed and Javier is allowed into Salazar's trusted - and therefore corrupt - elite. But since Salazar is already finished, thanks to US backing via the DEA, Javier gets to take the credit for the bust and enjoy seeing his baseball park for the children be built.
  • 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.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: At one point Wakefield gives a casually insensitive remark about Seth bringing her to a crime ridden part of the intercity. Seth immediately responds that the psychological impact of white people coming to black neighborhoods asking for drugs is severe as the Drug trade is inherently a quick money business. He argues that if the situation were reversed, most white kids would go into the drug trade.
  • 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 by planting a bug under Ayala's desk.
    • 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."
  • 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.
  • 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" Remark: 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.
  • Police Are Useless: None of the agents protecting Ruiz are suspicious at all when someone comes to his door saying they are the mafia.
  • 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 Caroline'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.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Wakefield's processor on the anti-drugs task force, General Landry. He's done a lot of good work, but is open about believing that his actions have had no lasting impact. He's willing to give some advice to his successor, while offering himself up as a Scapegoat in the event that's necessary.
  • 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 odorless 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.
  • Warm Place, Warm Lighting: Much of it is set in Mexico, and it is suitably golden-tinted. In contrast, scenes with the Ohio native protagonist are washed with blue.
  • What You Are in the Dark: Helena 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.