Directed by Steven Soderbergh starring Benicio Del Toro, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Erika Christensen, Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman, Jacob Vargas, Thomas Milian and Steven Bauer

In 1989 it seemed as if the world belonged to Steven Soderbergh. At the age of 26 he had just won the Palme d'Or at Cannes for his first film 'sex, lies and videotape' and many predicted stunning work in the years ahead. But while the award announced the arrival of a great talent, it would also prove an age-old adage: when you reach the top there's only one way to go. And for most of the 1990s Soderbergh did just that, helming one adventurous flop after another until he was so fed up that he wanted to walk away and shoot Super 8 films with his mates. Then came 'Out Of Sight', his effortlessly cool Elmore Leonard adaptation which justified George Clooney's movie star status, plucked Jennifer Lopez from fodder like 'Anaconda' and resurrected Soderbergh's reputation in one sassy swoop.

Since that turnaround he's been on a creative and commercial roll with 'The Limey', 'Erin Brockovich' and 'Traffic' and as if to make his Tinseltown rehabilitation complete, he was nominated this year for the Best Director Oscar for both '...Brockovich' and 'Traffic', taking home the gong for the latter. Had he collected the award for the blue collar drama of 'Erin Brockovich', it would have been a decent though less deserving winner because 'Traffic' shows a film maker at the height of his powers, pushing both medium and audience and setting the challenge for those who follow.

The film's spider web plot examines the drug problem across two countries, three cities and a dozen viewpoints. Javier and Manolo (Del Toro and Vargas) are detectives trying to stop the powder outflow on the front line in Tijuana and attracting the interest of army Mr Big General Salazar (Milian) in the process. Across the border in San Diego, their DEA counterparts Montel and Ray (Cheadle and Guzman) reckon they've got enough evidence to put away local bigshot Carlos Ayala (Bauer), a 'pillar of the community' whose wife Helena (Zeta-Jones) refuses to believe her husband is neck deep in anything illegal. That well-heeled ignorance is echoed in Ohio by Robert Wakefield (Douglas), a Supreme Court judge who is about to step into battle as America's 'Drug Czar', but who is too caught up in his own rise to see his daughter's (Christensen) narcotic descent.

With a running time of almost two-and-a-half hours, over 100 speaking parts and a budget of $49 million, 'Traffic' could have been a slow motion disaster, but from the first minute in the Mexican badlands to the grainy closing credits, Soderbergh has crafted a film (adapted from a Channel 4 series) which can hold its own in the company of 'The French Connection' and 'Scarface' and as a state of the world address. For all the big names and bigger issues, it's a remarkably unfussy film, moving on a clipped energy and never getting bogged down in a particular storyline. Shot in many cases with handheld equipment and minimal lighting, the stories themselves work more as documentaries than dramas, Soderbergh doubling as cinematographer and separating each with a distinct colour scheme (Mexico a burnt out yellow, San Diego a feel good orange mixed with dirty brown and Ohio a frigid blue).

For many of the actors involved, these are the strongest, most realistic roles they've ever had the honour to live in and while you can't take your eyes off any of them, it is Del Toro's border cop who is both the moral centre and real star of 'Traffic'. The Puerto Rican-born actor has carved a career playing loners and oddballs but his performance as Javier is also his finest to date - throughout the film you don't know whether he'll end up in bed with the dealers or in a dirt grave with his principles. His story is the most fascinating because, while his better paid colleagues across the border seem to believe that the war can be won, he has the dead-eyed look of someone who knows they're putting a plaster on a shotgun wound: a little man chasing other little men but never getting close to the drugs hierarchy.

Inevitably with so many plot strands some characters have to suffer and in 'Traffic' the casualties are those of Douglas and Zeta-Jones. Douglas does a good job as the well-heeled ladder climber, but while he holds the most power he never gets to look at the deepest corruption on his side of the border. Instead of focussing on US complicity, Soderbergh opts for family trauma, and while the plot is admirable and well realised, one feels that American officialdom has come out smelling a little fresher than it really deserved. Zeta- Jones meanwhile, is a victim of a time limit. While her character has a lot to lose, her transformation from confused wife to Ma Barker in designer heels comes too quickly to be credible. She does her best in both guises, but the change of heart is uneven and demands another 15 minutes of screentime.

But even these gripes seem to pale when one looks at the film as a whole. It may not throw enough stones at America but the ones that it does find their target with a style and precision that most can only dream of. This is a gutsy and urgent take on a problem shrouded in cowardice and procrastination, and while the film ends on some notes of hope, there's a dreary inevitability that in ten years the same arguments and conflicts will still rage. By which time of course Soderbergh's film will well have assumed classic status. Don't miss it.

Harry Guerin