Chris Nashawaty
December 22, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? The New Testament’s always been a pretty handy one-stop-shopping guide for these kinds of ethical questions. But in the absence of a King James, you might want to check out Del Toro in Traffic. (Forget for a moment that he was the best thing in The Way of the Gun earlier this year.) In Steven Soderbergh’s epic take on America’s war against drugs, Del Toro smolders as badass Tijuana cop Javier Rodriguez — a desperate federale who’s all coiled intensity and gum-snapping swagger on the outside. But inside, he’s a man grappling with his conscience as the rest of the world takes shortcuts and payoffs to look the other way while dope leaks into the States. As Orson Welles’ Mexico noir Touch of Evil told us 42 years earlier, the rules are different south of the border; but as Del Toro’s Spanish-speaking pawn shows us in Traffic, maybe they’re not that different after all. With dark, hooded eyes and an inscrutable poker face, Javier loses his partner — and nearly his sanity — waging a seemingly futile battle. While shady alliances keep shifting all around him, Del Toro keeps you guessing which way he’ll fall until the very end of the film. It’s as close as Hollywood gets to tragedy on a biblical scale.

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