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The drug war's good guys, bad guys and fall guys

'Traffic' frightens, informs, enthralls

CNN talks to Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michael Douglas and more

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Movie Trailer: 'Traffic'

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A 'czar' with a problem at home

Great direction, photography

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(CNN) -- Steven Soderbergh's latest film, "Traffic," is being heralded as an indictment of America's ineffectual war on drugs. Using natural lighting, hand-held cameras, various film processes, and three separate dramatic stories Soderbergh also has fashioned a blistering, thought-provoking modern masterpiece.

The film is based on "Traffik," a 1989 British Channel 4 miniseries that traced a drug route from Pakistan through Europe and into Great Britain. Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan has placed the action in Mexico and the United States, but otherwise has stuck to the main structure of the original. Using a large ensemble cast, Soderbergh has created a deeply layered, complex story that offers no solution for ending the war on drugs. In fact, he makes a strong case that the government's drug policies are riddled with good intentions that ultimately lead to hypocrisy, lies and failure.

Using three disparate stories featuring politicians, cops, victims, lawyers and drug lords, "Traffic" looks at all sides of the tangled web that has created the deeply disturbing problem of rampant drug use in America.

A 'czar' with a problem at home

One story centers on Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), an Ohio State Supreme Court Justice whom the president has just appointed as the nation's "drug czar." His naivete about the complexities of the country's drug problem is mirrored by his blissful ignorance, in his own home, of his daughter's heroin addiction. Newcomer Erika Christensen plays the daughter (Julia Ormond had the role in the British version) and Amy Irving portrays his wife.

A second tale features the actual drug dealers and two undercover Drug Enforcement Agency operatives trying to bring them to justice. Don Cheadle turns in an excellent performance as Agent Montel Gordon, and Luis Guzman plays his partner Ray Castro.

They've busted a mid-level drug trafficker portrayed by Miguel Ferrer. He's their main witness against a wealthy dealer, Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), who lives in an upscale suburb of San Diego, California, with his pregnant wife, Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who has no idea how he supports their lavish lifestyle. When he's arrested, she finds herself suddenly enmeshed with Mexican drug suppliers, the DEA and her husband's sleazy lawyer, played by Dennis Quaid.

The third story packs the biggest punch. Benicio Del Toro gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Javier Rodriguez, an honest Mexican border cop who works in the trenches of corruption, power and greed where the drugs enter the country. His gritty, stark portrayal is the heart and soul of the film. Del Toro is an old-school method actor, and he digs deeply into this rich and meaty role.

Great direction, photography

The exceptional direction and hand-held cinematography by Soderbergh (he uses a pseudonym, Peter Andrews, for his camera work), give this film its frightening sense of reality. This docudrama approach is highly effective, and takes an already provocative movie and turns it into a genuine thrill.

"Traffic" is one of those rare films that manages to have a social conscience without resorting to preaching, is heart-wrenching but not sentimental, and insightful without offering standard solutions.

If you're one of those people who want to see all the films nominated for Academy Awards, you'd better put this one at the top of your list.

"Traffic" opens nationwide on Friday. Rated R. 147 minutes.

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'Traffic' official site

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