Coming of Age 

*Traffic (R)
USA Films

*Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (PG-13)
Sony Pictures Classics

Film critics across the country appear to be in agreement that this year's best director Academy Award should go to Steven Soderbergh for his powerful one-two punch with Erin Brokovich and the recently released Traffic. Indeed, Soderbergh's body of work, especially his year 2000 contributions, make him a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood.

But I'd argue the award should be shared with Ang Lee, who with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the martial arts fable of ancient China, has proven that he can take an audience to any place (The Ice Storm), any cultural milieu (Sense and Sensibility), any historic era (Ride With the Devil), transporting the viewer with his seamless, meticulous artistry.

With Traffic, Soderbergh delivers his most complex, pertinent, gritty, opinionated and well-acted film yet. And with Crouching Tiger, Lee resurrects a popular form -- the swordplay kung-fu film of 1960s Hong Kong -- and turns it into something so beautiful that we forget we've been watching a martial arts flick.

Traffic should probably be viewed twice to appreciate the complexity of the plotting, moved forward by four separate stories that eventually intersect. There's the story of Tijuana policeman Javier (Benicio Del Toro) and his partner Manolo (Jacob Vargas), both basically good guys who are faced with the temptations of power and money offered by the military and the drug cartels. Across the border in San Diego, there's the story of two DEA agents, played by Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman, who get a break when they bust middleman/cocaine transporter Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer), who accepts immunity for identifying his boss, a major drug trafficker. Also in San Diego is Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a wealthy La Jolla housewife whose husband Carl (Steven Bauer) is arrested after it becomes known that he's a drug boss. And across the country is Ohio State Supreme Court Justice Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), who has just been appointed by the president as the nation's new drug czar, but is distracted by the growing problem at home of the drug addiction of his teenaged daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen).

All serve to illustrate the impossibility of winning the War on Drugs -- a monumental battle that pits government agencies against competing government agencies, law enforcement against international trade, warring drug cartels against one another, and individual family members against the culture at large, resulting in loss of life, personal tragedy, untold loss of public funds thrown at the problem and massive profits for the suppliers.

Soderbergh films his outstanding ensemble cast with a handheld camera, upping the immediacy of the action, and colors the segments with different filters, reminding us of where we are and color-coding our emotional response. It's a little jarring at first, but we settle in quickly as the drama unfolds. When I viewed the film, I could feel the intense level of interest in the audience. This is a film that needs to be listened to carefully in order to be fully understood.

Among the actors, Cheadle is a standout as is Christensen in her feature film debut. And Michael Douglas is wonderful as the struggling father. Notable in Traffic is the appearance of a handful of actual U.S. Senators and a former governor, filmed at a cocktail party where they ply Judge Wakefield with advice on how to conduct his office.

If I could choose only one film of 2000 as an absolute must-see (at least among those I've seen so far), it would be hard to choose between Traffic and Ang Lee's resplendent Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I hesitate to say I'd go with the latter.

This is a fable, a fairy tale, a love story set in ancient China, filmed in Chinese dialects and released for our part of the world with English subtitles. Chow Yun Fat (Anna and the King) is famed martial artist Li Mu Bai who, at the beginning of the film, announces to his lifelong friend Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) that he wants to change his life and turns in his sword, the legendary Green Destiny. He asks that the sword be delivered to Sir Te, a respected member of the court in Peking, and she complies.

Shortly after her arrival, Shu Lien meets Jen (Zhang Ziyi) the spirited daughter of Governor Yu, engaged to be married but determinedly strong-willed and self-directed. When the sword is stolen from Sir Te's home, Shu Lien discerns that Jen, like herself and Li Mu Bai, is trained in the fantastical martial art of Wudan and is the likely thief. What she does not know is that Jen's governess and teacher is Jade Fox, sworn mortal enemy of Li Mu Bai.

The story eventually becomes the struggle for the soul of a disciple, and the unfolding of Li Mu Bai's love for Shu Lien. But the stunning entertainment value comes in the exquisite cinematography and special effects. The astonishing fight scenes have warriors catapulting across rooftops, through the branches of trees, and flying over waterfalls.

Equally breathtaking is the extended flashback sequence in the desert of China, explaining how Jen, before her engagement, met and fell in love with a roving bandit, Lo (Chang Chen). Their romance begins as an extended skirmish and ends with a painful goodbye, all set in caves and on rock abuttments in the midst of hundreds of miles of sand formations.

All of Crouching Tiger is beautifully filmed, and it's one of those movies that offers images that stay with you. One is conjured simply with words by Lo: Imagine an orphan boy roaming the desert in search of fallen stars. Others are visual: Imagine a cool bath in a desert cave. Imagine a silent warrior, performing a solitary dance with his sword in a stone courtyard at dawn, watched by the woman who secretly loves him. Imagine a swordfight staged in the treetops of a bamboo forest, the green tips of the trees rustling with animal energy.

Crouching Tiger does not pretend to be profound; it's loaded with humor and tongue-in-cheek bows to Hollywood traditions. The rustling of the court caravan by Lo's rowdy bunch of marauding bandits mimics classic cowboy and Indian ambushes of American Westerns. And a wonderful scene where Jen takes on a band of burly fighters perfectly parallels the classic saloon showdown scenes of that same genre.

Don't beware of subtitles here. In his exacting fashion, Ang Lee has seen to it that the words that cross the screen, like the fights, are perfectly choreographed. This may be the first subtitled film I've ever seen where the translation is matched to the rhythm of speech, so that reading it becomes as natural as watching the action on the screen.

Both Traffic and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon redeem an otherwise lackluster year at the movies. Both are memorable films that rank among the best mainstream films released in the past 10 years.


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