None of them stand out.
I hate to compare every hyperlink film to Crash, but this movie actually did resemble Crash in many ways, but replacing racism with the world of drugs. In both movies, there are large ensemble casts and seemingly disconnected stories that slowly intertwine as the movie goes on, often revealing unexpected connections. Both movies use those large ensemble casts almost as a vast survey reaching out to every participant in a certain social issue. For example, Crash takes the rich racist white lady, a super bigoted cop, a Persian shop owner being called 'Osama,' etc. Traffic does the same for the drug trade, taking a casual experimenter who becomes an addict, a drug czar, some DEA agents, and some corrupt Mexican cops. So for each of their respective issues, Traffic and Crash ambitiously tackle every person touched by the issue.
Traffic does things so well that Crash doesn't. The most obvious thing is the nuance. Crash isn't nuanced; its message is clear and obvious, spoken bluntly by Ludacris when he rants about racism. Traffic is so much more nuanced. There were times during the movie when I did worry that it wasn't any deeper than "drugs are bad," especially in scenes when people debrief Robert (Michael Douglas) about how dire the war on drugs is, like when they stand at the border checkpoint as someone tells Robert, "they don't have a job like yours in Mexico." But as the movie goes on, it gets more complex, and I love the way it ended, with Robert ending his 10-step war on drugs speech and attending one of his sister's narcotics anonymous meeting. It doesn't ever become preachy or over-the-top; it presents a slight change of heart as Robert sees the personal impact of drugs and opens his mind up a little. Same with the nice, elegant ending to Javier's story, as he watches baseball after having arranged for their night games.
Crash also annoyingly descends into that "wow, look at that crazy connection between these previously unrelated characters! Isn't it crazy how fate works?" thing. Like I've said in previous reviews, sometimes you can't help but find it cool to discover hidden connections, but if you want a movie about fate, watch Magnolia. If it's a movie like Crash or Traffic, the sprawling narrative should serve to 1. show a wide variety of characters who interact and participate in the system in different ways, and 2. illustrate how the social system intertwines all these people's lives in destructive ways.
So Traffic's use of overlapping stories and unexpected connections was perfect because it had the three things it needed to have. 1. It had a point. The fact that Francisco Flores, the assassin Javier catches, is the assassin Helena later hires isn't a mere coincidence. It shows how small this whole drug world is; I mean, it spans countries in its hugeness and effects, but a lot of the same people know each other. Same with how Javier and Helena pass each other on the street in Mexico. They share vital connections to Francisco Flores, and they both have significant ties to the Obregón brothers. 2. The interrelation of the stories makes the story easier to digest. This is a long, ambitious, sprawling story, but it's never hard to keep track of, partly because of the shifting visual style and partly because everything is tied together, not three entirely distinct stories. 3, and possibly most importantly, the connections are understated. When Helena and Javier pass each other on the street, it's done casually, without any crazy musical cues or mind-blowing camera pans to emphasize how insane it is. It's different from Crash, a movie that practically shouts at you, "look at how fucking cool it is that those two people just passed each other? You had no idea they were related!!!"
All of these strengths have left out some of the more obvious ones. The acting is aces all around. I like Benicio Del Toro as a charismatic guy who has to confront the corruption of the Mexican government who is supposedly anti-drugs. I like Michael Douglas's unveiled pain as he, a supposed politician, marches into the ghetto and demands to find his daughter. I like Topher Grace's narcissism and lameness almost as much as I like his monologue about racism encouraged by the drug trade, which should come across as preachy but for some reason simply didn't to me.
I could keep naming cool things. I love the editing, especially the quick and claustrophobic cuts as Caroline's friend begins to overdose, unnoticed by his friends. I like the distinct visual styles, which all fit perfectly with their stories. Portraying foreign countries like Mexico as entirely yellow is an annoying trope in TV shows like Teen Wolf, but it somehow fit with the low-key, understated storytelling here. The blue palette of the Ohio scenes fits with the really dark, somber story. And the naturalistic look works well for the California scenes, which in some ways are the most conventional, with an entertaining buddy duo (loved Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman, and heart broke a little when Ray Castro died). Also, the movie has some fun tense scenes reminiscent of Breaking Bad, even though most of the movie is more of a drama than a thriller. That scene with Flores getting ready to shoot Eduardo is terrific, as is the scene when Eduardo is actually killed.
Overall, Traffic is a super enjoyable movie full of rich characters, nuance, and understated storytelling.
They say drag issue is deeply rooted and cannot be easily solved. In 'Traffic', each character struggle in his/her own fight without anyone making clear cut.
One of the reason the drug issue is deep rooted is that the drugs are breeding ground of illegal business as well as their dependency. There is an opinion to legalize drugs to reduce violent crimes because cracking down on illegal activities in the US only results in increase of illegal business in Mexico and other countries as well as related violent crimes in the US.