By Troy Patterson
Updated March 17, 2020 at 02:49 AM EDT

It’s been said that it takes a second viewing of Traffic to pick up on its nuances. The movie, a cross-cut triptych of melodramas, is pleasurably packed: One story line finds the U.S. drug czar (Michael Douglas) grappling with his own daughter’s habit; another tests the heroism of a Mexican cop (Benicio Del Toro); in the third, a jailed kingpin’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) takes over the family business. Another viewing clears up intricacies while allowing you to relish them, to marvel at the skittering, elliptical style that director Steven Soderbergh’s been honing since ”Out of Sight.”

But the second look also prompts as many questions as it answers. Why, say, does the preppie addict whore herself for junk when she could cop it from her boyfriend? How far, exactly, does the cosseted wife’s quick shift to swaggering felon stretch credibility? Taking such shortcuts in the service of a polemic — the familiar argument that the ”drug war” is a farce — the filmmakers do us wrong. ”Traffic” is, at heart, uncommonly sophisticated pulp, and that magnificent organ is all the substance we need.