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By TODD MCCARTHY
GRADE: Excellent

Enormously ambitious and masterfully made, "Traffic" represents docudrama-style storytelling at a very high level. A powerful overview of the contemporary drug culture that is both panoramic and specific, the multistrand story bears some traces of its origins in a five-hour 1989 miniseries from Britain's Channel 4 and comes up a bit short in its concluding moments. But with this sober-sided work following the more overtly "entertaining" look at another societal cancer, "Erin Brockovich," by just nine months, Steven Soderbergh has certainly had the most impressive year for an American director since Steven Spielberg delivered both "Jurassic Park" and "Schindler's List" in 1993. With strong reviews and intelligent marketing, USA Films looks likely to at least push this $50 million-plus production close to the B.O. ceiling for specialized releases, with crossover to more mainstream acceptance dependent upon multiple unpredictable factors involving awards, the zeitgeist and so on.

Using a large canvas and a huge (and hugely talented) cast, Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan ("Rules of Engagement") have endeavored to be as realistic and detailed as possible in their dissection of the hows and whys of North American drug trade and consumption. While its three principal storylines don't presume to constitute a comprehensive account of the subject, the shrewd choices of characters and locales manage to illuminate an excitingly diverse range of participants, from government officials and traffickers (sometimes the same thing) to earnest enforcement officers, users and incidental victims on both sides of the Mexican border and at all stations on the class scale.

Although one of the film's driving impulses is clearly to cast a skeptical (if not completely scornful) eye on the War on Drugs as long defined by the U.S. government, it is a testament to the priorities of Soderbergh and his collaborators that their first order of business was to tell their complex stories as dramatically and coherently as possible. Especially given the outsize dramatis personae, this has been accomplished in exemplary fashion; the various threads have been interwoven and balanced with extraordinary skill so that the tension and power keep steadily building, until close to the end of this nearly 2½-hour film.

First glimpsed, in bleached-out sepia tones, are Tijuana-based cops Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas), who intercept an airborne coke drop-off in the desert but are then themselves apprehended by army general Salazar (Tomas Milian), who seizes the stash. In Stateside scenes drenched in bluish hues, Ohio State Supreme Court Justice Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is about to be appointed the nation's new drug czar, just as his bright 16-year-old daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen), is moving from recreational drugs into heavier stuff with her preppie boyfriend and classmates.

In bold color, determined and resourceful DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) are conducting a sting operation on San Diego–based dealer Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer), whom they hope will help them nail local kingpin Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), whose pregnant society wife, Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), doesn't know the nature of her husband's business.

Once these storylines are effectively set up in a way that allows many characters to become quickly well defined by presenting them in extremis, Soderbergh pushes deeper to show how the pervasiveness of drugs has poisoned the lives of everyone concerned, even if most of the characters don't actually use drugs themselves. In preparation for his job, Wakefield listens to the distilled "wisdom" of U.S. politicians at a cocktail party (where actual inside-the-Beltway figures, including senators Orrin Hatch, Barbara Boxer, Don Nickles and Harry Reed, improvise their dialogue), and later visits the Tijuana border crossing where, in nifty candidly filmed footage, he gets a firsthand impression of the daunting task facing authorities who try to flush out smugglers on a daily basis.

On the Mexican side, the imposing, grandstanding Gen. Salazar, who enjoys a public reputation as a drug-buster, is revealed to be in on the action himself and involved in the attempt to wipe out the Tijuana cartel to the benefit of the Juarez druglord. To this end, he recruits cop Javier to capture hired assassin Francisco Flores (Clifton Collins Jr.), who in turn is tortured for info that leads him, as well as Javier and partner Manolo, to fateful involvement in the case of the imprisoned Carlos Ayala and his former San Diego contact Eduardo, who has been persuaded to testify against him in U.S. court.

Although her transformation from shock over her husband's occupation to ruthless command over his operation happens rather quickly, Helena, in cahoots with her questionably motivated lawyer, Arnie Metzger (Dennis Quaid), stops at nothing to keep herself in the money. In an action-suspense highlight that adroitly employs the old Hitchcock standby of the planted bomb that viewers know about but the characters do not, witness Eduardo is being led to an explosives-rigged car by Montel and Ray, only to change his mind and insist upon walking to his hotel, a decision that leads to more than one surprise.

As the vice tightens on all the characters, Caroline descends into outright addiction. Furious at his wife (Amy Irving) for having known about their daughter's problem for some time without having told him, Wakefield trolls the mean streets in search of his only child, finally recruiting her cocky b.f., Seth (Topher Grace), to locate her in a dingy motel.

Appropriately, some of the individual stories end tragically, others equivocally, and maybe one with a sense of release and transformation. But none concludes without trauma and resulting deep scars. The film accepts that there are no easy answers to the gigantic problem that drugs pose for society, but it also is animated by the underlying suggestion that the status quo is unacceptable, that the combination of U.S. naivete with heavily financed interdiction and strong-arming of foreign governments isn't paying dividends; the absence of voiced alternatives is mocked and lamented in a telling scene in which Wakefield asks his advisers to brainstorm on the matter and no one has a thing to say.

Although the filmmakers apparently didn't care to cross the line from implicit critique into advocacy, they have still fumbled by not working more sting and irony into the picture's concluding section. Finding himself unable to deliver his intended pat homilies at his first press conference as drug czar due to what he's been through with his daughter, Wakefield disappointingly comes up with nothing personal to offer in their place; this, followed by some well-meaning but dramatically wishy-washy rehab footage, winds up this story strand in irritatingly soft fashion compared with the more intriguing, ambiguous feeling of the other stories' final notes.

Lensing the film himself (as he did on his 1996 low-budgeter "Schizopolis") under the nom de camera of Peter Andrews, Soderbergh has given the film tremendous texture as well as a vibrant immediacy through constant handheld operating, mostly using available light, and manipulating the look both in shooting and in the lab. Stephen Mirrione's editing, which gives "Traffic" a beautifully modulated overall shape, is characterized on a moment-to-moment basis by jump cuts and jagged rhythms. Overall result is far too stylized to call the approach verite, but pic looks far more caught-on-the-run, and therefore far less staged, than all but a few other American films. Philip Messina's expressively diverse production design and Cliff Martinez's synth-heavy background score are also big pluses.

It's a virtual given in Soderbergh's work that the performances will be outstanding; there are just more actors here than usual, and therefore more wealth to spread around. Douglas bookends his outstanding early-in-the-year turn in "Wonder Boys," in which his character was quite taken with mind-altering substances, with a strong characterization of a man whose personal and professional lives are turned upside down by his daughter's descent into drugs. In his most arresting screen appearance since "The Usual Suspects," Del Toro is magnetic as a cop who navigates through extremely hazardous legal and moral reefs. The undeservedly underused Ferrer makes the most of his screen time as the bitterly cynical mid-level operative left with little choice but to rat on his boss; Cuban-born Italian cinema vet Milian creates an indelible impression as the leathery, corrupt Mexican army general; then-pregnant Zeta-Jones is natural and credible as a pampered wife who's tougher under her soft features than anyone could have imagined; Cheadle and Guzman generate sympathy for their agents' dedication and risk-taking; Collins throws some deft moves into his perf as a crafty hit man; and Vargas shades the character of Del Toro's partner with contrasts that help distinguish the intelligence, ethics and luck of the two men. Salma Hayek shines in a brief, uncredited cameo as the glamorous mistress of the Juarez druglord.

Pic is further graced by the decision to have the Mexican characters speak in Spanish whenever they presumably would in life, resulting in enhanced reality as well as significant subtitled dialogue, which really shouldn't pose much of a problem even to mainstream Yank audiences.

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