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GRADE: 3 out of 4

Steven Soderbergh's already praised Traffic is easier to respect than to love, largely because it takes a coolly detached approach — something any honest docudrama about a subject as pernicious as the drug trade has a right to do. After all, there are no easy answers to the problem — in life or on the screen — and perhaps that's why this multipart story has a surprisingly flaccid finale.

Until then, Stephen Gaghan's script mines nearly 2½ hours of consistently credible drama from four interlocked stories inspired by a British TV miniseries, Traffik. And Gaghan's approach makes sense, because drug use by its nature can make very strange bedfellows of scummy traffickers, narcotics agents, wealthy suburban users and adolescent addicts.

Two of the stories can be taken as one, given that they deal with narcs on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. Benicio Del Toro and Jacob Vargas play Tijuana cops trying to bust the drug trade with even less official help than they think they have.

Their American counterparts are Drug Enforcement Administration agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) who successfully "sting" a San Diego dealer (Miguel Ferrer, brilliantly conveying malevolence in defeat) and induce him to squeal on the local Mr. Big (Steven Bauer).

This phony La Jolla businessman, in turn, is married to a pregnant and oblivious society/charity type played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, an actress who doesn't get to share a single scene with her new real-life husband, Michael Douglas.

Douglas is cast as an Ohio Supreme Court justice who has just been named the nation's drug czar, a man whose organizational skills cloud the fact that he hasn't a clue.

He's unaware that his teenage honor-student daughter (Erika Christensen) has been freebasing with spoiled school pals in their upscale Cincinnati suburb, and that's only the beginning of her downward spiral.

Soderbergh has photographed Traffic himself (under a pseudonym) in raw handheld fashion and with washed-out and brighter colors aggressively clashing. While the visual tone doesn't exactly seem inappropriate, it does make the movie one of the ugliest of the year.

The story itself is surprisingly seamless, yet it's the individual components that linger: bandying between Cheadle and Guzman; Del Toro's weary, Charles Bronson-like countenance; Zeta-Jones' dramatic and pragmatic personality switch after gauging her sorry future.

For all its year-end acclaim, Traffic doesn't seem that much better than (or even as good as) Soderbergh's past three features: Out of Sight, The Limey and Erin Brockovich. But only he has the unbroken string of recent quality pictures that could even start a debate.

© Copyright 2000 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.