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.