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GRADE: It's worth $6.50

Steven Soderbergh is definitely on a roll with his last four features -- Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, and Traffic -- all smart films, often inspired, almost always interesting. (I’d toss in his hilarious, definitely offbeat 1996 Schizopolis as well.) Out of Sight was the sort of perfect commercial confection that should have been a huge hit, yet somehow it didn’t really find its audience until it came out on video. The Limey was designed to be a small-scale chamber piece, so it wasn’t until Erin Brockovich that the still-young director -- all of 37 -- scored the kind of major, big-studio success that will assure his bankability for years.

Still, Erin Brockovich seemed something of a retreat: Soderbergh kept a rein on his favorite stylistic devices and signatures. It was a work more of intelligence than inspiration, a remarkable application of skills to one of the most cliché-prone, formulaic genres out there.

Now, with Traffic, Soderbergh seems to be a bit more confident again about exercising his style within a big-budget Hollywood production (as he was in Out of Sight). This ambitious film tries to weave a panoramic view of the drug trade by following three loosely interconnected plot threads.

The first story concerns Montel (Don Cheadle) and Ray (Luis Guzman), two DEA agents trying to break up a huge drug-smuggling operation from the U.S. side of the border. They bust Eduardo (Miguel Ferrer), who leads them to Carlos (Steven Bauer), a big-time importer and social leader in San Diego. Carlos’s wife, Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), has no idea her husband is a crook. But, with her husband in jail and herself facing the imminent destruction of their finances and their future, Helena -- in a sort of ironic feminist twist -- manages to take over where her husband has left off.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, two Tijuana policemen -- Javier (Benicio Del Toro) and Manolo (Jacob Vargas) -- are walking the tenuous line between law and crime: they attempt to be honest cops by helping the country’s leading military drug buster (Tomas Milian) until they realize that he is simply wiping out one cartel to bolster the fortunes of another.

And back in the States, respected judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) takes the job of national drug-enforcement czar. Ironically, he and his wife (Amy Irving) are in complete denial about the obvious fact that Caroline (Erika Christensen), their privileged 16-year-old daughter, has a drug habit.

Soderbergh intercuts these three stories, all of which are different aspects of one big story -- a portrait of the economics and human conflicts that make the drug trade completely unconquerable. The film is careful not to make harsh, knee-jerk judgments against the end users or even against some of those who profit. The amount of money involved is simply too insane, and it’s impossible for some of the players to stake out a perfectly clear moral. The seemingly honest guys on the street, like Javier and Manolo, are in a milieu so corrupt that there simply is no well-lit path of righteousness. Wakefield thinks he’s a tough, honest crime fighter, but he is being used by the White House as a public relations ploy, and even he flinches only slightly at the offer of special allowances for his daughter.

It’s not a particularly optimistic picture, nor should it be. In a country where "the drug problem" is such a convenient scapegoat for far deeper societal ills and where being "tough on drugs" is a political mantra so powerful that even many self-styled liberals consider it a valid reason to revoke civil liberties, there is little reason to be optimistic. Yes, drugs create social problems; but the demand for and broad usage of drugs are also created by social problems. What Traffic does is to speak that which for any politician would be unspeakable: the war on drugs is not only losing, it never had a chance.

In many ways, Traffic makes a cogent case. But it’s also a disappointing film. It’s easy to see why advance word-of-mouth is so strong: it’s two-thirds of a terrific movie. That is, the Del Toro story and the Cheadle/Guzman/Zeta-Jones story suggest how altogether great Traffic could have been; but the Douglas story is so much less compelling that it’s hard to believe it’s part of the same film.

In fact, both in style and in content, the Douglas thread feels almost like a TV movie: good liberal intentions, few rough edges, and some vaguely hopeful speeches at the end. But the setup -- new drug czar is so intent on cleaning up the world that he can’t see the corruption in his own home -- is too pat. And, likewise, its details seem fake and forced compared to the rest.

In general, despite the apparent research Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan did, their resolution to Caroline’s drug problem simply does not jibe with the real world. We’re supposed to believe that, by throwing the kid into rehab, there’s some progress being made. But she doesn’t want to kick the habit. Like lots of people, she enjoys being a junkie. Anybody with experience of junkies quickly realizes that rehab is worthless if the person doesn’t see that his or her habit is a problem. You clean up, you get out, and you simply start over again.

There is a second problem -- a single disturbing moment in Soderbergh’s treatment of Caroline’s descent into the abyss. We see this rosy-cheeked, middle-class kid take to dispensing sex in exchange for drugs -- a valid signifier of her degradation. But Soderbergh pulls out the oldest, vilest, most notoriously evocative image to emphasize this: she’s not just sleeping with a street criminal; she’s sleeping with a big black buck of a street criminal.

Go ahead: say I’m being "P.C." Point out that in the part of the country where the story takes place, low-level urban drug dealers are overwhelmingly African American. That still doesn’t change the fact that the image of the big, virile, dangerous black man having his way with the flower of white womanhood is a racist provocation that immediately evokes memories of Birth of a Nation. I don’t think that Soderbergh intended to be suggesting, "Not only is she selling herself; she’s selling herself to one of them." But, within the historical context of such images, it would be naive to deny that the audience will take the implication that this marks an even deeper shame.

The general patness and flatness of the Douglas plot is in striking contrast to the rest of the film. Douglas tries gamely, but he doesn’t get much to work with. More’s the pity, because the bulk of the movie is filled with wonderful actors getting to do wonderful stuff. (We’ll leave out the distasteful sight of the loathsome Republican demagogue Orrin Hatch in one party scene.) Miguel Ferrer is perfect, as always, and once again Soderbergh figures out how to use Cheadle and Guzman infinitely better than anyone else has. Zeta-Jones is excellent as a classic film noir "tough babe." But it’s Del Toro who really gets to strut his stuff with a subtle, ambiguous, and riveting performance. In a field of top-notch actors, he’s the one whom you remember days later.

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