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Traffic is a real cannonball, a hardass drama about the drug trade that Steven Soderbergh directs like a thriller — it comes out blazing. Nothing with the daring of Traffic has emerged from this timid movie year. Credit USA Films for going where the major studios feared to tread. What were the suits afraid of? Plenty. Besides a plot about drug trafficking between the U.S. and Mexico — sensitive toes are appropriately squished — the film is a free-form omnibus of interlocking story lines.

Not to worry. Soderbergh, working from a propulsive screenplay by Stephen Gaghan, quickly gives us our bearings. Three characters take center stage: Ohio State Supreme Court Justice Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), appointed by the president as the anti-drug czar, is oblivious that his teen daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is a junkie, that is, until he finds her zonked out and ravaged in a dealer’s bed. Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the pregnant wife of a San Diego drug lord (Steven Bauer), closes her eyes to how hubby makes his fat-cat living, that is, until he’s arrested. Javier Rodriquez (Benicio Del Toro), a Mexican cop on the Tijuana border, tries to steer clear of the bribes and power plays, that is, until they cut close to home.

Dozens of players swirl through Soderbergh’s mosaic of willful blindness and systematic corruption. The hand-held camerawork — Soderbergh himself did the holding — provides a documentary feel that rivets attention. What’s remarkable, amid the frenzy, is how the actors bring vibrant human dimension to their roles. Douglas, who signed on to play Robert when Harrison Ford chickened out, excels as a political animal who’s in over his head, at work and at home. The judge’s daughter — Christensen is a real find — has gone way beyond recreational snorting with her boyfriend, Seth (Topher Grace of That ’70s Show): She’s a freebasing addict. That knowledge leads Robert and his wife, Barbara (Amy Irving), to open fire on each other with blistering resentments that scorch the screen.

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