Universal // 2000 // 148 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daniel Kelly (Retired) // May 5th, 2010
No one gets away clean.
Steven Soderbergh's Traffic was a massive hit 10 years ago, both critically and financially. The film notched four Oscars including a best director gong for Soderbergh, and was arguably one of the first truly great pictures of the 21st Century. The film's exploration of the causes and effects of the drug trade in the USA and Mexico is harrowing, and a decade hasn't dulled its potency one bit. Traffic remains a totally relevant and astonishingly well-acted piece, and it looks pretty nifty on this newly released Blu-Ray.
Traffic follows several story arcs, all of which revolve around the drug trade and the consequences it has. The US President's new Drug Czar, Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas, Wall Street) is attempting to come down hard on the war against drugs, but is internally struggling with his teenage daughter Caroline's (Erika Christensen, The Perfect Score) own destructive addiction. A pair of DEA agents, Montel (Don Cheadle, Iron Man 2) and Ray (Luis Guzman, Waiting), are surveying Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones, The Mask of Zorro), a drug lord's wife whose husband has recently been imprisoned. Finally a cop called Javier (Benicio Del Toro, The Usual Suspects) struggles with the moral implications of being part of a corrupt police force in Mexico.
The screenplay by Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) is truly brilliant; it crafts an intricate thread of plots, and boasts a brave and affecting message. Traffic pulls very few punches as it wages war against the drug trade, using a spate of well rounded and sympathetic characters to tell its story. Gaghan's plotlines are expertly developed and blend together exquisitely; each is as gripping and dramatically compelling as the others. All of the narrative strands are distinct enough to stand on their own, and each plays to a different tone, yet they feel comfortable together as an artistic whole. Gaghan has definitely infused Traffic with a strong anti-drug sentiment, but his writing is far from preachy or righteous. The picture takes its key components and crafts a mood of despair and subtle desperation; Traffic is a bleak picture and for large chunks not an easy watch. The film will draw an intellectual reaction and should certainly spark serious questions in any viewer's mind, but audiences should be warned Traffic is not traditional entertainment. It is an immensely thoughtful and reservedly opinionated piece, a production that has something important to say, and it does so with fascinating realism.
Soderbergh shoots using an intriguing documentary aesthetic; much of Traffic's disturbing atmosphere can be traced back to his crisp and unflinching direction. Soderbergh is a fairly hit and miss filmmaker (along with Tim Burton, he's probably Hollywood's most erratic helmer), but his work on Traffic is one long string of successes. Everything about the film is well adjusted and correctly played; the cinematography, for instance, is equal parts gritty and immersive. The tone of Traffic is also kept commendably consistent, Soderbergh avoiding any cloying sentimentality in his examination of numerous lives falling apart. The director takes Gaghan's sublime screenplay and films it in an aggressively dark and unapologetic fashion. Traffic is a motion picture that wants to unearth the sadness, violence, and dirty tricks of the drug trade, and it revels in the emotional distress and confusion it creates. It's a filmmaking feat worthy of celebration, but not one that sensitive or easily distressed cinema goers are likely to enjoy.
The acting in Traffic is possibly its greatest asset. Every screen presence brings a wonderfully nuanced performance to the table, apart from an unusually dull Dennis Quaid (Flight of the Phoenix) playing Helena's lawyer and confidante. Benicio Del Toro won a best supporting actor Academy Award for his work here, and it's obvious why given his masterfully emotive and mature turn. Del Toro is more expressive than usual in Traffic, and brings a fully realized sense of angst and conflict to Javier. Catherine Zeta-Jones handles her character's interesting arc well; it requires several transitions of mood and the actress manages them all comfortably. Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman have a genuinely sound chemistry together, the former doing particularly well as the picture evolves. Michael Douglas is hugely sympathetic and restrained as both a struggling father and a government official, whilst young Erika Christensen is heartbreakingly raw and organic as his depressed and chronically addicted daughter. On the sidelines, thespians like Topher Grace (Spider-Man 3) and Jacob Vargas (Death Race) are reliably solid. Many of the characters in Traffic take the actors out of their comfort zones, and yet most screen personas are morphed into engaging and gorgeously rounded figures. Much of the project's mileage comes from the determined and deeply believable acting on show; without such a spectacular ensemble the entire enterprise would be lost.
Traffic musters some genuinely suspenseful and thrilling sequences, but ultimately Soderbergh's film is a more subdued and far-reaching beast. This is a movie that despite the presence of several A-list actors and a fairly big name director, wants to steer away from convention and deliver a unique cinematic experience. Traffic seeks to convey an important message, but with filmmaking professionalism and dramatic integrity to boot. Traffic is a must see, and time hasn't dampened its power or unquestionable quality.
This Blu-Ray release isn't bad, but more extra content would have been preferable. There is a huge range of deleted scenes, which should appeal to fans wanting to move deeper into the characterization and story. This dropped material would probably have made the film a little too baggy (it already runs for over two hours), but enthusiasts should revel in the extra meat it offers. The only other bonus feature is an 18-minute making of that operates more as a promotional piece, examining the film in a similar fashion to advertising. In terms of extras this is certainly a disappointing disc, especially seeing as it's missing content from past DVD releases. The video is strong, and whilst due to the production's earthy style it can never attain the upmost levels of hi-def gloss, it still boasts acceptable detail and well balanced colour schemes. Certainly in terms of audio and video, this is the best presentation of Traffic currently out there. The disc is provided in flipper format, with a standard DVD version on the other side.
Traffic is a rewarding and emotionally resonant slice of cinema, offering fine performances and an end message that doesn't suffocate the entire feature. This Blu-Ray could have used a little more additional content, but the video presentation is solid and doesn't diminish the dirty visuals. For those who already own past editions of Traffic, I'd say this Blu-Ray is worth a rental, and for those who don't already possess it, it's a strongly recommended purchase.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
* DTS HD 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 148 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* DVD Copy