One story is that of Ohio Supreme Court justice Robert Wakefield. He is promoted to be the US government's new drug czar. Problem is that back at home his own daughter is becoming rapidly hooked on crack. Another story tells the story of two Mexican cops trying very hard to be honest in an environment where there really is no such thing. The third story is of a millionaire drug dealer whose own high society wife doesn't know where their money comes from. She is suddenly faced with a very tough decision when he is arrested by a pair of undercover cops.
This may sound like an awful lot of material for one movie to handle seamlessly but somehow director Steven Soderbergh manages just that. He helps things move along smoothly by shooting different areas in different ways. For instance, scenes with Michael Douglas have a blue tint while scenes in Mexico are a harsh grainy yellow. After jumping between stories a few times it becomes a bit of shorthand that tells you immediately where the action is now.
The most interesting thing about the overall film is that it never takes sides and never preaches to the audience. It simply lays bare the cold hard facts and leaves it up to the viewer to sort out an answer that makes sense. That may sound like a cop out but in fact it makes perfect sense. One of the things made very clear is that the current war on drugs is a failure and has been from the moment it was started. The amount of money being made on drugs is so high that the problem cannot be fought by attacking the source of the drugs. It's a bit like punching water. You throw a fist and get a big splashy impact. But then the water just flows back around your hand and soon it's hard to tell that you even did anything other than get yourself wet.
I came away with the opinion that the effort needs to be at the root of society to take away the need to use drugs. But of course that's hard to do and involves hard thinking so politicians prefer to instead focus on law enforcement. The end result is higher drug prices and prisons overflowing with people jailed for becoming addicted. Since addiction is really a disease, doesn't it make more sense to help addicts control the addiction than throw them in a room with more addicts and no solution?
Of course now I'm preaching instead of reviewing, which indicates just how effective this movie is.
High praise goes to the entire cast (reportedly 110 speaking parts) for excellent work. Benicio Del Toro ranks highest on this list. His character is a Mexican cop trying to be honest in a country where police work is described as "entrepreneurial." He is asked to aid General Salazar in his attempts to eliminate one of the drug cartels. That may sound like a good thing to do but in fact Salazar really wants to do this to help another cartel. Del Toro's character must balance all of this against an offer to help the DEA. His portrayal leans heavily on his ability to convey his enormous burden and tough decisions with his expressions and body language. You really feel how difficult it is for him to try and do the right thing.
On the flip side is Michael Douglas as the new drug czar trying hard to make a real impact on the drug trade. He enters the job with good intentions but quickly becomes overwhelmed with the enormity and complexity of the task. Simultaneously he has to deal with a daughter becoming a junkie. Douglas is excellent and complemented very nicely by Amy Irving as his wife and Erika Christensen as the daughter. Christensen in particular shines as she goes from A student to girl so dependent on drugs she would prostitute herself for money.
Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman also do excellent work as a pair of undercover cops chasing a rich dealer in San Diego. They have an easy rapport that indicates partners long used to working together. Opposite them is Catherine Zeta-Jones as the pampered wife of the that very drug dealer who suddenly has to take over an illegal business she never knew existed. Jones displays a range of emotion and inner toughness not seen in any of her previous roles.
This is a movie that works brilliantly on many many levels. Acting, directions, cinematography and writing blend beautifully in a film that will depress and enrage while providing plenty of thoughts to chew on. The drug problem is not a simple one and it takes a complicated unconventional movie like this one to take it all in.