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BY STEPHEN HOLDEN
GRADE: 3 out of 4

Steven Soderbergh's great, despairing squall of a film, "Traffic," may be the first Hollywood movie since Robert Altman's "Nashville" to infuse epic cinematic form with jittery new rhythms and a fresh, acid- washed palette.

The agitated pulse of the hand-held camerawork (by the director working under a pseudonym) that roughly elbows its way into the center of the action is perfectly suited to the film's hard-boiled subject, America's losing war on drugs. The color scheme sandwiches a few lush patches between sequences filmed in two hues — an icy blue and a sun-baked yellow-orange — that are as visually discordant as the forces doing battle.

Where Mr. Altman's masterpiece portrayed American culture as a jostling, twangy carnival of honky-tonk dreams, "Traffic" is a sprawling multicultural jazz symphony of clashing voices sounding variations of the same nagging discontent. The performances (in English and Spanish), by an ensemble from which not a false note issues, have the clarity and force of pithy instrumental solos insistently piercing through a dense cacophony.

The characters run the social gamut, from affluent United States government officials and wealthy drug lords on both sides of the United States border with Mexico and their fat-cat lawyers, to the foot soldiers doggedly toiling in a never-ending drug war.

The most indelible performances belong to Benicio Del Toro as a burly, eagle-eyed Mexican state policeman of pluck and resourcefulness who has the street smarts to wriggle out of almost any squeeze; Michael Douglas, as a conservative Ohio Supreme Court Justice who is appointed the country's new drug czar, and Erika Christensen, as his sullen drug-addicted teenage daughter. Catherine Zeta-Jones is also riveting as a wealthy, ruthless, Southern California matron who is unaware that her husband is a high-level drug smuggler until he is dragged out of their house by federal agents.

The movie, which jumps around from Tijuana to Cincinnati to Washington to San Diego, from a posh Ohio suburb to the inner city to the Mexican desert to the White House itself, offers a coolly scathing overview of the multibillion-dollar drug trade and the largely futile war being waged against it.

But as despairing as it is, "Traffic" is not cynical. It gives its isolated heroes in the trenches their due. One of these is Javier Rodriguez (Mr. Del Toro), a wily, good-hearted Mexican policeman who conspires with the Drug Enforcement Administration to bring down his own boss (Tomas Milian), a corrupt Mexican general who uses torture to get his way. Other heroes include a pair of D.E.A. undercover agents, Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman), who spend half their lives in cramped vans engaged in surveillance.

"Traffic" is an updated, Americanized version of a 1989 British television mini-series, "Traffik," that followed the drug trade from Pakistan to Britain. From an ambiguous, paranoically-charged opening desert sequence (reminiscent of the crop- dusting scene in "North by Northwest"), in which Javier and his partner, Manolo (Jacob Vargas), surrender a newly captured truckload of cocaine to the corrupt general, to a late scene in which an American agent risks his life to plant a bug in a dealer's mansion, "Traffic" is an utterly gripping, edge-of-your-seat thriller. Or rather it is several interwoven thrillers, each with its own tense rhythm and explosive payoff.

What these stories add up to is something grander and deeper than a virtuosic adventure film.

"Traffic" is a tragic cinematic mural of a war being fought and lost. That failure, the movie suggests, has a lot to do with greed and economic inequity (third world drug cartels have endless financial resources to fight back). But the ultimate culprit, the movie implies, is human nature. Waging a war against drugs isn't just a matter of combating corruption but of eradicating the basic human desire to "take the edge off," as Mr. Douglas's character, Robert Wakefield, says in defense of his nightly drink of Scotch. "Otherwise, I'd be dying of boredom," he adds.

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