Traffic is a long, restless, shifting thriller with some multi-layered plotting and plenty of pleasing technical flourishes. But, for all the virtuosity, it's basically the story of two men at opposite ends of a futile drug-enforcement drive, both slowly losing their grip on the morality demanded from their positions.
Steven Soderbergh has returned to a key obsession of his first film, sex lies and videotape: the seething humanity lurking beneath respectable surface. For example, Judge Wakefield's (Michael Douglas) earnest proclamations about "the war against drugs" disguises a turbulent, American Beauty-style home-life, where his seemingly pristine daughter (Erika Christensen), desperate for a form of expression, has turned to the oblivion of cocaine. Douglas is superb as the politician finding his public views colliding with his personal life, and he convincingly plays a man whose upstanding hectoring has to gradually wilt in line with his daughter's alienation.
But if he is the general, Benicio Del Toro - the real star of the film - is the frontline grunt, waiting for the next smuggle-wagon to make a hapless break for the border. He`s a man with a long-developed resistance to the impossibility of his job, but who somehow still finds the determination to do it clean.
Around this foundation, Soderbergh works in two more inter-related stories, piling on an impressive ensemble cast with Tarantino-like assurance - it's the sort of film you can imagine a post-Jackie Brown QT making, had he not wasted his time doing cameos in the likes of Little Nicky. A pregnant Catherine Zeta-Jones is the domestic goddess whose life is flippedupside-down by the realisation that her hubby's a cocaine importer, undercover cop duo Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman are as perky as ever, the criminally underused Miguel Ferrer pops up as a luckless mid-level dealer and Albert Finney tries out his Southern drawl as a chief-of-staff type.
Soderbergh is dangerously close to developing a reputation as a director who can bridge the gap between mainstream and arthouse. His technique is never cosmetic or intrusive- it always enhances the feel of a scene. So, whenever we're in Mexico, he uses sweltering, desaturated stock, yet in Washington, the colours become muted and washed in blue, while every pacy conversation employs some jump-cut dialogue splicing. And there's also a masterfully edited gunfight. Someone, please, give the man a blockbuster.
A triumphant, intelligent drama, oozing dramatic poise and complexity. Some fantastic performances are picked out by Soderbergh's stylistic verve. And, while it's hardly saying anything new, Traffic is an irresistible look at the drug-world pecking order.