Oliver Stone’s mean little thriller about dope, guns, and fucking in the California sun is enough fun to watch that, for about half of its running time, I didn’t care that it has little else going for it. An Oliver Stone screenplay used to bring with it a wild-eyed bid for topicality — films like Salvador and Scarface stood not just as provocation but also as snapshots of their era. Savages nods briefly in the direction of politics, with a sidelong reference to the presumably inevitable three-years-hence legalization of the kind of hard-to-get, THC-rich substance that’s the speciality of sexed-up potheads Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), who get rich quick on their killer weed by day, then kick polyamorous squeeze Ophelia (Blake Lively) back and forth between them like a hacky-sack by night. Shit gets real when a Mexican drug cartel takes an interest in their business acumen and offers them a partnership they’d love to refuse.
Coming on like he had something to prove, Steven Soderbergh managed to release not one but two world-beating films this year. Erin Brockovich was pretty good, an extremely well-directed movie of the week with a delightful-for-a-change Julia Roberts in the title role. But Traffic is a relatively deep and highly entertaining epic about the hypocrisies and futilities inherent in the American war on drugs. Transplanted to the U.S. and Mexico from a British TV miniseries set in the U.K. and Pakistan, Traffic dismantles U.S. drug policy with an acumen rarely seen in recent mainstream film. Distinguished by outstanding performances (particularly from Benicio del Toro and the great Don Cheadle) and superior storytelling strategy, the whole project is dragged down somewhat by contriving to make Drug Czar Michael Douglas’s daughter a goggle-eyed dope fiend and by Soderbergh’s overly stylized cinematographic strategy. Quibbles aside, the rest of the picture is an exciting message movie that proves Hollywood can still make exciting message movies. So bring ’em on, folks.