Steven Soderbergh holds forth for two and a half hours on the illicit drug trade. One hears that the narrative is "complex," but only in the strictly numerical sense of "consisting of two or more related parts" (courtesy of Webster's New World Dictionary). Three parts, to be absolutely exact. The first deals with a morally ambiguous Tijuana cop (Benicio Del Toro), the second with two DEA agents (Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman, a couple of Soderbergh repertory players) in their efforts to safeguard an unwilling witness against a socially prominent San Diego dope dealer, and the third with the newly appointed federal drug czar (Michael Douglas) whose own adolescent daughter is herself ironically, tragically, melodramatically, and mawkishly hooked on drugs. Only the moral ambiguity of the Tijuana cop, or maybe the general ambiguity of law enforcement in Mexico, attains anything close to complexity in the deeper sense. The other two plot strands, unsuccessfully camouflaged by the documentary-style camerawork (jerky pans, a wavering frame), are individually on the level of a TV movie. Or old episode of Hawaii Five-O. Further lessening the complexity of the design is Soderbergh's decorative decision to color-code each plot strand: the czar's section, whether in his hometown of Cincinnati or in the corridors of Washington, D.C., is tinted blue; the Tijuana cop's is all in yellow; and the DEA's is blanketed in a whitish-brownish foggy-smoggy haze. Or to say it another way, instead of giving his movie a unifying "vision," he gives it a variety of different "looks" -- just what you might want for a cutting-edge postmodern glossy fashion magazine or hip, hot, new gossip show on the E! channel, but not for a hard-hitting, no-holds-barred exposé on the drug racket. There is, throughout the movie, a didactic interest in laying out How Things Work and How Things Are. And it can best be recommended as a sort of freshman survey course -- War on Drugs 101 -- if still on the level of a TV movie. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Dennis Quaid, Miguel Ferrer, Amy Irving. 2000.

Duncan Shepherd

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