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    2000, R, 147 minutes

    By Jay Tierney...

    What sets Steven Soderbergh apart from so many other directors is that he never fails to reinvent himself. He may be on a cinematic hot streak that most people only dream about, but from Sex, Lies & Videotape to Out of Sight or Erin Brockovich, nothing he does ever looks or feels the same.

    With Traffic, Soderbergh's most ambitious film to date, he takes an all-star cast that you'd expect to see in a glossy Hollywood picture, and places them in a world of raw, documentary-like footage. The result is an insightful and fascinating look at the drug war, which also happens to be an entertaining crime masterpiece.

    Based on the 1989 British mini-series, Traffik, this film follows four closely-linked stories and eventually shows us how, under the current system, the drug war is utterly useless. In what is perhaps the most interesting angle of the story, a straight-laced Tijuana police officer (Benicio Del Toro) moves up in the ranks when he becomes associated with General Salazar -- a man who desperately wants to break up a local drug cartel. Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, a judge (Michael Douglas) is appointed as the new Drug Czar for the United States, which is somewhat ironic considering his daughter (Erika Christensen) is an addict hooked on cocaine and heroine. Also, in San Diego, two DEA agents (Don Cheadle, Luis Guzmán) are cracking down on local distributors, which leads to the arrest of a big-time smuggler whose pregnant wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) must survive while he's behind bars.

    The first indication that Traffic is a great film is the sense that each of these stories is good enough to warrant a movie of its own. The characters are all compelling and fun to watch and Soderbergh's use of tinting to differentiate between the numerous storylines is quite effective. Obviously much of the praise should be attributed to Stephen Gaghan's beautifully woven screenplay, but the decision to shoot it like a documentary with handheld cameras transcends a feeling of truth and realism that would've been lost otherwise.

    What's best is Traffic never bothers to preach, instead opting to explain the facts and then let them do the talking. It shows us how drugs have been wired into our society the same way large corporations have, and the idea of completely removing a widespread industry is laughable, especially with a product that so many people are after. Everyone can draw their own conclusions, of course, as the film remains morally ambiguous, but the overall feeling most people will get is that the current war on drugs is a war that can't be won. Billions on top of billions are spent every year, yet the drugs still get across the border, and the only real type of prevention is through treatment in order to reduce demand. Furthermore, the strict laws that are in place simply provide a motivation for profit and make it much easier to acquire product.

    While there are clearly no lead actors, the moral center of the film is Javier Rodriguez -- Benicio Del Toro's excellent portrayal of a conflicted Mexican cop. In a subtle and touching performance that people will remember for quite some time, Del Toro deals with choosing sides, well aware that he's being used either way. As for the rest of the cast, Jacob Vargas is solid as a fellow police officer, and Michael Douglas is good as the Czar who must deal with hypocrisy on a personal level. Even better is Erika Christensen as his 16-year-old daughter, in one of the best performances of an addict I've ever seen. Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman are a great team to watch (thanks mostly to their hilarious, improvised dialogue), and Catherine Zeta-Jones reveals her acting chops in a chilling role that transforms her from sweet and innocent to cold-blooded and ruthless.

    Some people may be disappointed that Traffic doesn't really move them on an emotional level, but for the film to blatantly do so would be a betrayal to its even-handedness and might even make it less powerful. Traffic is a brilliant work of art that depicts all sides of a controversial issue, and then allows logic to draw the conclusions rather than manipulate its audience. After an inside look at what is really just a business, ultimately we come to realize that the war itself does far more damage than the actual drugs.

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    Information & Credits

    Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
    Written by: Stephen Gaghan
    Starring: Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Don Cheadle, Luis Guzmán, Dennis Quaid, Erika Christensen, Jacob Vargas, Amy Irving, Steven Bauer, Topher Grace, Albert Finney, James Brolin, Benjamin Bratt, Miguel Ferrer, Stephen J. Rose

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