This week John Leonard reviews two movies: Traffic, a USA Films release starring Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Benicio Del Toro; and The Visit, from Urbanworld Films, starring Hill Harper, Obba Babatundé and Rae Dawn Chong.
A decade ago when they spelled it with a k, Traffik was a British television miniseries, following the heroin trail from the poppy fields of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkey to the docks of Hamburg to the addicts of London.
As updated for Hollywood with a "c" by edgy director Steven Soderbergh and a dozen familiar faces, it is about the United States, Mexico and cocaine. But the story's the same: A First World honcho charged with stopping the flow of drugs from Third World
countries finds out that his own daughter is a user.
That official in this Traffic is Michael Douglas, newly appointed to replace James Brolin as commander of our war on drugs. He is married to Amy Irving, and neither knows what to do about their daughter Caroline. Meanwhile, Catherine Zeta-Jones is just as surprised to discover her husband, played by Steven Bauer, is a major drug dealer.
But even with drug enforcement agents Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman keeping close watch, she knows how to waste a witness against her husband.
When Douglas isn't drug-czar jet-setting back and forth across the country, he's looking for his daughter in a bad neighborhood. Before and after all the border action, Benicio Del Toro is the only cop in Mexico not working for a drug cartel.
In this Traffic, there's no gridlock. It's all velocity. But it goes nowhere. Only once does Michael Douglas wonder where among his brain trust is anyone who knows anything about treatment. And when he figures out a war on drugs won't work, in Mexico or his own house, he quits and so does the movie.
In another movie this week, less expensive, the situation is equally impossible. But they deal.
In The Visit, Hill Harper is doing time on a rape charge he still denies, up for a parole he won't get, and dying of AIDS, when his family finally starts to visit.
First up is his successful older brother, Obba Babatundé, followed by an old girlfriend, Rae Dawn Chong, who has survved worse things than Harper. And finally after five years, there's a forgiving Marla Gibbs and a furious Billy Dee Williams.
Between these visits, he sees a prison psychiatrist, Phylicia Rashad, and fantasizes freedom, elsewhere, warmth, some other history.
Austere, principles, wounding and miraculous, The Visit proposes salvation by increments. In the end, it may ask too much of us. Genuine transcendence usually does. But by staying put in awful intimacy, instead of rushing from crime scene to tantrum to dread, it goes deep and makes us feel, like a needle in the heart.