Cast: Benicio del Toro, Michael Douglas, Erika Christensen, Topher Grace, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Dennis Quaid, Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman, Tomas Milian, Amy Irving, James Brolin, Albert Finney, Clifton Collins, Jr., Benjamin Bratt, Viola Davis, Salma Hayek
Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actor (Benicio del Toro), Best Director (Steven Soderbergh), Best Adapted Screenplay (Stephen Gaghan), Best Film Editing (Stephen Mirrione)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture
SUMMARY: This film features several intertwined storylines; the action switches back and forth between the lines. For continuity, the summary is presented not as it appears in the movie, but as small summaries of the different storylines.
Javier Rodriguez (Benicio del Toro) is a police officer in Tijuana, Mexico. Of particular concern in the area is the drug trade, particularly the competing families, the Tijuana Cartel (run by the Obregon brothers), and the Juarez Cartel. At the beginning of the film Javier and his partner Manolo Sanchez intercept a shipment of drugs, but are then intercepted themselves by General Salazar (Tomas Milian) and his men. Salazar is impressed with Javier and his initiative, and as a test run asks Javier to find and bring in Francisco Flores (Clifton Collins, Jr.), a hitman for the Obregons. Javier finds Flores almost immediately, and returns him to Salazar, who in turn tortures the hitman for names of his superiors in the cartel. Javier is then sent out to arrest the various cartel members, and the Tijuana cartel starts to suffer. Unfortunately, Javier and Manolo learn that Salazar’s true intentions are not so honorable: he is working for the competing cartel, the Juarez Cartel, and is crippling the Obregons to help them. The DEA has become involved in the situation, and Manolo tries to sell them the information about Salazar. The cartel finds out first, and Javier and Manolo are both taken out, forced to dig their own graves, then readied for execution. Manolo is shot, but Javier is not. However, he decides that he cannot participate in Salazar’s scheme , and also makes a deal with the DEA. His deal is successful, and as payment Javier arranges for lights to be added to Tijuana baseball fields, so that children can play baseball after dark instead of getting into trouble. With Javier’s help, the corruption of the Mexican police and military are brought to the attention of the media.
Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is a well-respected judge from Ohio who has just been named the new head of the President’s Office of National Drug Control Policy. Wakefield is determined to finally win the “war on drugs”, but is warned by many in Washington that it is impossible to win. Meanwhile, completely unbeknownst to her father, Wakefield’s daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) has developed into a raging drug addict who uses with her friends, including boyfriend Seth (Topher Grace). Wakefield’s first clue to this addiction is when his daughter and Seth are arrested after dumping an overdosed friend at an emergency room entrance. Wakefield is horrified, even more so when he learns that his wife has known about Caroline’s habit for six months. Caroline is sent to a treatment facility, but while her father is working in Mexico she runs away. She heads to Cincinnati, only visiting her parents’ house at night to steal belongings for cash. Wakefield is unable and unwilling to wait on the police to find Caroline, so he begins to patrol the streets, looking for her on his own. He eventually finds Seth and forces him into joining the search. Seth leads him to their dealer, and although the man refuses to cooperate, Wakefield figures out where Caroline is. He breaks in, and rescues his daughter. He returns to Washington and makes a speech accepting his new position, and detailing his plans; in the middle of it, he comes to the realization that the war on drugs would mean war on his own daughter, which he cannot do. He then rejects the appointment and goes home to his wife and daughter; all three begin going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
In San Diego, undercover DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) are about to bust Eduardo Ruiz, a dealer for the Obregon cartel. Rather than convict Ruiz, however, the two agents are more interested in getting to his higher-ups in the cartel. In return for immunity, Ruiz gives up the biggest Obregon U.S. dealer: Carl Ayala, who is soon indicted. The news of Ayala’s true profession comes as a shock to his wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who is pregnant with their second child. She initially is very courteous to the Gordon and Castro, who are keeping an eye on her from a van outside her house, but after her son is threatened she begins to doubt their power. She is also unable to raise any money, having been prohibited from selling anything from her house, and does not have a job herself (or family to help her). On a veiled hint from her husband, Helena finds the number of a hitman — Flores, the same man kidnapped by Javier Rodriguez and Salazar — and hires him to kill Ruiz, the only witness against her husband. Flores decides to use a car bomb, and plants it on the car the DEA are using to transport Ruiz. However, Ruiz is suspicious, and doesn’t get into the car; on Helena’s urging, Flores prepares to shoot him. However, Flores himself is being watched by an assassin as payback for ratting to Salazar; he is shot before he can kill Ruiz. Castro then runs for the DEA car, and is killed in the resulting explosion. Helena is determined to get rid of Ruiz, and this time goes straight to the top: she visits Juan Obregon (Benjamin Bratt). Armed with a new method of smuggling drugs into the U.S. (invented by her husband), she arranges a new distribution deal with the cartel, and also arranges a hit on Ruiz. Ruiz is soon poisoned and Ayala is released. Gordon is furious, and during a party bursts into the house, raising a fuss; during a scuffle with some bodyguards, he surreptitiously puts a listening device under a table in the Ayala house. Meanwhile, Ayala has figured out that he was set up by his associate Arnie Metzger (Dennis Quaid), and has him killed.
MY TAKE: Goodness, everybody’s famous in this movie, too. Even the minor characters are played by famous people — the guy that Wakefield replaces is James Brolin, the drug lord is Benjamin Bratt, Viola Davis plays a social worker who talks to Wakefield’s daughter, and Salma Hayek even shows up briefly. It reminded me a little of one of those ensemble comedies like Love Actually, both because of the huge famous cast and because of the intertwined-but-separate storylines. It’s also a unique movie because it’s pretty realistic regarding the proliferation of drugs, and the impact they have, but it also manages to be hopeful. Wakefield comes to realize that the war on drugs probably is unwinnable, because the demand is so great and they’re readily available, and Gordon realizes that he’s kinda fighting a losing battle — there’s always somebody higher up on the food chain, and there will be someone to replace anybody removed by the cops. This doesn’t stop him from keeping at his job, even after his partner is killed on the job. I was disappointed in Catherine Zeta-Jones, who flipped from good to evil, but obviously Gordon’s gonna get her in the end. That whole drugs-as-plastic thing was pretty ingenious, though.
RATING: Very good.