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By J. HOBERMAN
GRADE: Favorable

Traffic, the Steven Soderbergh dope opera that outflanked Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and pushed past The House of Mirth to win the New York Film Critics Circle best picture award, is a most ambitious pop epic. Inspired by the 1989 British television miniseries Traffik, it brings the story closer to home, opening just south of the border with two Tijuana cops (Benicio Del Toro and Jacob Vargas) capturing a planeload of cocaine. In the first of many reversals, another agency unexpectedly takes over.

Cutting north, Soderbergh introduces a parallel pair of DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) making a messy undercover bust in San Diego; a quartet of upper-class teens freebasing in Ohio; and Michael Douglas flying into Washington, D.C., to take over as the nation's latest drug czar. Traffic is not just an ultra-procedural-it's the Big Picture, the Whole Enchilada, complete with a complicated war between two Mexican drug cartels. The movie, which Soderbergh shot as well as directed, can be a bit exhausting in its color-coordinated parallel action, but it replenishes itself once the various melodramas begin to entwine.

Traffic puts a heavy arm on the audience to demonstrate that drugs touch us all. The effect is never more Griffithian than when the czar's golden daughter (Erika Christensen) becomes a crack 'ho. There are more than a few plodding clichés mustered among the movie's large ensemble cast, but TV writer Stephen Gaghan has scripted some excellent scenes?teenage kids trying to think and then think again when one of them goes into convulsions, Douglas's harried wife (Amy Irving) demanding that he stop babbling about his access to the president and devote some "face time" to their daughter. (This terse domestic squabble has a bitterness far beyond the smarmy histrionics in American Beauty.)

As it turns out, Douglas's comprehension of the Mexican situation matches his understanding of his daughter. Nothing else in his performance equals the tight fist he makes of his face when a 16-year-old preppie (Topher Grace) informs him that, down in the ghetto, crack is "an unbeatable market force." Everyone has a piece of the puzzle: A posh La Jolla matron (Catherine Zeta-Jones) comes to terms with her husband's real business; a middle-level drug dealer (Miguel Ferrer) lectures his DEA captors on how NAFTA makes their job harder. ("Are we on Larry King or something?" the bored cops ask.) Traffic may be didactic, but it's not unduly moralizing or simplistic even when Douglas tosses away the text of his big speech and tells the nation, "I don't know how you wage war on your own family."

Performing public service here for the feckless (if unconvincing) pothead he played in Wonder Boys, Douglas is the film's nominal star. It's Del Toro, however, who has been racking up the raves he should have received for enlivening Basquiat and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Unafraid to posture (his Paul Muni parody in The Funeral was exceeded only by his Brando turn in Way of the Gun), Del Toro plays his enigmatic Mexican everyman as cocky yet thoughtful, an infinitely delicate brute. (The scene wherein he cruises a psycho hit man in a Tijuana bar is a standout non sequitur.) Fascinatingly mannered, Del Toro is not exactly giving a coherent performance?although his stunts seem to have driven Tomas Milian to his own heights of weirdness as a Mexican general.

Surely less lugubrious than if it were directed by Michael Mann, Traffic is exemplary Hollywood social realism. Skeptical about the War Against Drugs, it's cannily designed to make the movie industry look good?and not just because the film is serious, responsible, and half in Spanish. Watch for that D.C. party where happily co-opted Hollywood basher Senator Orrin Hatch simpers with pleasure at the prospect of hobnobbing with the likes of Michael Douglas. There's more than a shadow of Willem Dafoe's Nosferatu in the old tart's hunger to share the spotlight and more than a bit of Malkovich's Murnau in Soderbergh's willingness to oblige.

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