There is a popular belief amongst law enforcement officers that the war on drugs has already been lost. Try making a movie on the subject that isn't bad guys with moustaches, car chases and a shootout in a warehouse.

Steven Soderbergh became the new kid on the block at his first attempt with sex, lies, and videotape, only to disappear into the indie wilderness, making stuff like Kafka and Schizopolis, which no one saw, only to emerge triumphantly onto the mainstream with Out Of Sight, The Limey and Erin Brockovich. Now he takes up the challenge of the ultimate drug flick by returning to basics.

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He shoots handheld, with himself behind the camera. The ensemble style is intentionally rough, particularly in the Mexican scenes where colour has been bleached a tobacco yellow. Each of the central stories has an individual look to make them easily identifiable, as the action cuts from one to the other. This photographic coding is arty in concept, the only false note in the movie.

The four sections weave and interweave, occasionally touching. There is Ohio State Supreme Court Justice Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), who is appointed national anti-drugs tzar, and his daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen), who is sucked ever deeper into heroin dependency.

There is Mexican cop, Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro), working close to the American border and trying to avoid the naked greed of institutionalised corruption to stay alive. There are undercover DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman), who snatch a trafficker, Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer), and keep him under wraps until the trial of drug baron, Charles Ayala (Steven Bauer), where he will star as chief witness for the prosecution.

There is Ayala's wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) in San Diego, six months pregnant and ignorant of her husband's business, who finds herself penniless and shunned by her so-called friends. There is the hit man (Clifton Collins Jr) and the general (Tomas Milian), who play one cartel off against another, and there are Ruiz's words to his captors: "Don't you see this means nothing. Your life is pointless."

Perhaps it is. Certainly the task of policing a growth industry of this magnitude. As Caroline's boyfriend tells her father, "For someone my age, it's easier to get drugs than alcohol."

Stephen Gaghan's script covers the territory with brutal honesty. The actors respond in kind. Soderbergh's vision has little time for sentiment and the film delivers like a right hook, spurning the prospect of redemption with a double dose of irony.

Reviewed on: 02 Feb 2001
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Multi-layered drama of drug trafficking in Mexico and the efforts of American undercover cops to curtail it.
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