Traffic (18)

Review by Jack Foley & Ethan Shaw

IN THE space of just two years, Steven Soderbergh has emerged from the barren wilderness of movies such as Kafka and The Underneath to become one of the must-see movie-makers of the moment.

Ever since the critical and commercial success of Out Of Sight, Soderbergh has been on a hot streak which shows no sign of cooling. Less than 12 months after delivering the glorious Erin Brockovich, the director has come up trumps again with Traffic, a movie which critics are queuing up to heap praise upon.

And it is easy to see why. Traffic may be Soderbergh's most ambitious project to date - featuring four random yet vitally interlocking stories and characters based on the Channel 4 mini-series Traffik - but it remains a masterclass in film-making; raw, riveting and totally believable. If Michael Mann's The Insider blew the whistle on the US tobacco industry last year, then Traffic exposes America's casualty-strewn war against the drug cartels - a battle fought in the home as well as on the dust-ridden wastelands south of its border.

Both movies adopt a similar documentary-feel style, both like to make stark use of colour (witness Soderbergh's sun-bleached Mexican landscapes, or the whiter than white corridors of power); and both are driven by powerhouse performances.

Forget Pulp Fiction, with its larger than life gangsters and dubious morality, this represents the thinking man's Tarantino, with characters that are grounded in reality.

Principal among them are Benicio Del Toro's dogged Mexican cop, an enforcer who refuses to succumb to the corruption surrounding him; Michael Douglas's newly appointed drugs czar, whose battle against the cartels must start with his own junkie daughter; Catherine Zeta-Jones's expectant high-society mother, who opts to deal herself when her millionaire husband is taken into custody; and Don Cheadle's wise-talking cop, who will stop at nothing to get his man.

All deliver perfectly apt performances and it is almost impossible to pick from the bunch; Douglas's powerhouse government official is fantastic but no more than on a par with Del Toro's simplistically understated yet absorbing detective.

Cheadle, too, is compelling as he begins to question his methods and even Zeta-Jones, hardly a heavyweight leading lady, manages to afford her anti-heroine a strangely fascinating human touch - she has landed a Golden Globe nomination to boot.

Each exist at various points on the drug spectrum and although they all appear on the surface to be independent, the profound impacts they inflict on one another is a virtuoso study in cause-and-effect. While much of the credit goes to writer Stephen Gaghan, the real genius is Soderbergh and the manner in which he intricately weaves his rich tapestry is truly enthralling.

Much will be made of the deliberate pre-production colour tampering to provide each vignette its own idiosyncracy (Douglas - stark dawn blue and white; Del Toro - twilight bleached yellow; Zeta Jones, Cheadle - rich technicolour) indicating again the different positions each inhabit along the drug line.

Although impressive, it is hardly necessary, however; the deliberately paced and carefully delivered storyline copes adequately on its own and provides a fascinating insight into a tricky subject without becoming preachy or idealistic.

At times it even strays into documentary territory - coming across as a kind of fly-on-the-wall look at America's increasingly futile battle with the drug cartels - but even this doesn't detract and instead succeeds in raising the tension.

Much of the slow-burning storyline may require a degree of patience for some but it never drags and certainly delivers when it needs to with bursts of action supported by clever dialogue throughout. It's Soderbergh at his brilliant best, garnering superb performances from all his leads and employing them efficiently and with an assured touch to realise his grander vision in full.