Illegal drugs, from cannabis to heroin, are big business across the world. There is no shortage of demand, there is no shortage of money to be made from dealing and consequently there is a war going on between law enforcement officers (how American) and drug dealers and users. This is of course only one perspective and this film does a fairly good job of challenging that explanation.
The film is told through a variety of different characters (over 100 speaking parts in all) from Michael Douglas as the new Drugs Czar, Bob Wakefield, through to the excellent Benecio Del Toro as the Mexican cop, Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez. The cast list is impressive and unsuprisingly the acting is a really high standard throughout. There is no real central plot, we are just flicked back and forth between the various lives onscreen, each with a common theme of drugs. We dip in and out of side stories and sub-plots which contrast and complement each other, mirroring the diversity within the drug world and on a larger scale, human society itself.
A two and half hour epic from flavour of the month, Steve Soderbergh, this film pleasantly suprised me. I enjoyed it. The whole thing is filmed in a documentary style (hand-held cameras and unproduced sound) and despite this being a well-used technique by now, it still works very well. Soderbergh also messed about with the colour, a sepia looking wash over everything for Mexico, blue for Washington and so on (although I don´t think this was maintained throughout the film). I´m not too sure what the desired effect was, perhaps to help distinguish between the many settings but it doesn´t really add anything to the film. Otherwise the direction is really good, you get a real feel for each of the places and the handheld camera and unpolished sound add to the impression that you are a close observer.
The action kicks off with Benicio Del Toro, a Mexican cop who seems to be resisting the corruption that surrounds him. As the film progresses we are treated to glimpses of his life as he begins to work with the corrupt General Salazar (the army anti-drug guy). I won´t discuss the storyline too much because it may spoil the film. Del Toro is amazing, I think an accomplished actor who gives an impressive display here, his cop is very likeable and was my favourite character in the film by far.
Michael Douglas was well cast as the ex-judge turned Drugs Czar. He begins as a naive and fairly clueless pompous business type, exactly the type of guy with harsh views about dealing with drugs. It transpires his daughter has a bit of a habit which soon gets out of control and he is faced to deal with drugs in a far more direct and personal way. I don´t like Douglas but I have to admit his acting is very good, he manages to be convincing in the part.
Other stories include the drug baron who is arrested leaving behind clueless wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones to deal with the aftermath. She then provides the low point of the film for me by whining about how she has never had to cope on her own. Dennis Quaid offers to help but really has alterior motives, he acted his part extremely well. Eventually Cathy decides to try and run the business herself (yeah right). There was also the futile struggle of the cops, Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman as they arrested dealer Steven Bauer and then attempted to protect him before he testified against the big boss, Zeta-Jones´ husband.
Overall the acting is great, it really makes the film work and they have done well to show the diverse range of people who may come into contact with drugs for all kinds of reasons. The direction was also great, it never gets too confusing although you may find that you want it to be staying with one story and it stubbornly zooms off into a different one every few minutes. Still it held my interest for the full running time and the mixture of stories probably helped in that respect.
What was the message supposed to be though? I´m not sure if there was one really. The ending was cheesy in my opinion, and did not really satisfy. The film pointed out a range of problems without ever risking falling off the fence. All it really says with any conviction is that the current system does not work. I thought it could have been more hard hitting but wasn´t because they wanted to win oscars. There is no debate about most of the issues, the scene where Bauer suggests to the cops that they are merely working for his competition in arresting him was good. They also pointed out that many of the violent drug related deaths came about due to police controls making the business more difficult. The scene between the kid, where a friend of his daughter´s tells Douglas how it is, was good and made an excellent point. However there was nothing about legalisation and very little distinction made between types of drug.
There were also a number of things, apart from Catherine Zeta-Jones, that I didn´t like. The rich kids, still at school and they are sitting round in one scene smoking a bong, snorting coke and eventually freebasing. This was rubbish how much money do they get? It must be a fortune to support that kind of habit. It just wasn´t believable, it was too exagerrated. The daughter of Douglas was just annoying, "I´m so spoilt I hate this world" type nonsense. There was also a tendency for the baddies in the film to be foreign (ie not Yanks) and the portrayal of Mexico was pretty harsh, according to this film you can´t even be honest if you want to be in the Mexican police force. I didn´t think there was really any attempt to get inside the mind of an addict, they offered no explanation for why drugs are so popular and really only showed the familiar negative effects, the overdose scene (boring).
I did still enjoy the film and thought it had been cleverly done with an excellent cast, it just fell short of making any real statement or taking any risks, there is very little here that I hadn´t seen elsewhere. Perhaps because he is the least familiar the Del Toro character is the most interesting and I wouldn´t have complained if the film had just been about him. An entertaining, cleverly weaved mixture of stories featuring some fine acting, it could have been alot worse.