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BY KEVIN MAYNARD
GRADE: 94/100
Traffic is a riveting, semi-documentary drama, and yet calling it that is a disservice to just how suspenseful and stylish an entertainment it is. This is a banner year for Steven Soderbergh. With Erin Brockovich, he stripped away Julia Roberts' polished matinee idol familiarity to reveal something more deeply captivating, and now he's delivered the most vital film of his career. Riffing on the British Channel Four miniseries Traffik, Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (Rules of Engagement) interweave three loosely related stories about the ongoing drug war being waged across the U.S.-Mexican border; all three narratives are equally engrossing and intersect in surprising ways. Refreshingly, Soderbergh refuses to moralize, putting a human face to all sides of a high-stakes, contradictory world of coercion and addiction that transcends race and class. But don't be put off by prosaic or formalistic analyses — rest assured that this is no egghead critics' picture.
Mexican cop Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) treads a dangerous line between warring drug cartels, with the ever-present prospect of turning informant to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency further complicating his existence. When his less-savvy partner (Jacob Vargas) takes the DEA bait, Javier gets caught up in blackmail and murder, just for trying to save his friend's neck. Meanwhile, a conservative Ohio State Supreme Court Justice (Michael Douglas) gets appointed by the president as the nation's new drug czar, but he and his wife (Amy Irving) are fighting a more personal war with their teenage daughter (Erika Christensen), who's becoming increasingly hooked on crack and heroin. Back in the border badlands, two undercover DEA agents (Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman) in San Diego stake out the home of a trophy wife and mother (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whose life takes an unpredictable turn when she learns the true nature of her powerful husband's professional life.

From a director prone to overly long movies — consider the somewhat over-praised Out of Sight's protracted heist climax — this is surprisingly lean, muscular filmmaking. Slipping back and forth across borders and alternating between English and subtitled Spanish scenes, Soderbergh never lets his sprawling story get away from him and acts as his own cinematographer (using the pseudonym Peter Andrews) in addition to directing. Yet for all his usage of handheld cameras, jump cuts, and carefully variegated film stocks, none of the filmmaking calls attention to itself; the stylistic flourishes directly enhance the movie's sense of immediacy and urgency.

Soderbergh has also assembled a top-flight ensemble cast — generously, every player of any prominence gets at least one good scene — which is perfectly attuned to his sense of social realism. In sharp contrast to the pot-headed professor he played in Wonder Boys, Michael Douglas gives a smashing performance as a swiftly fraying Capitol Hill straight arrow; while his story line almost approaches the unintentional camp of Paul Schrader's Hardcore, he never once turns his grieving parent into an over-the-top vigilante. Also terrific are Christensen and Irving as his family, That '70s Show star Topher Grace as a wise-ass junior drug hustler, and Marisol Padilla Sanchez, whose haunting beauty looms over the entire film.

Luis Guzman, Don Cheadle, Dennis Quaid, Albert Finney, Clifton Collins Jr., Vargas, Miguel Ferrer — the list of strong turns goes on and on. A very pregnant Catherine Zeta-Jones demonstrates a rich lode of hitherto unrevealed dimension, but the real star is Benicio Del Toro. For the first time, a little older and a little paunchier than in his hip, eye-catching turns in such films as The Usual Suspects, Del Toro gets to play a man with heart and soul. His agonized conscience is the core of Traffic's power. This is a film about human relationships: with each other and with a form of commerce whose fiendish stranglehold on modern society is far too complex to be wished away by simply saying no.

Rated R for pervasive drug content, strong language, violence, and some sexuality.

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