Traffic Review

Traffic is based on the 1989 Channel 4 miniseries Traffik (written by Simon Moore and directed by Alastair Reid and also available on DVD). The original was set in the UK and Pakistan; the remake shifts the locale to the USA and Mexico, but Stephen Gaghan's script retains the original's multiplot structure. In Mexico, local cop Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) become involved with the National Drug Force, run by General Salazar (Tomas Milian). Rodriguez and his colleague Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) arrest Francisco Flores (Clifton Collins Jr), a hitman for the powerful Obregon drug cartel. Flores's evidence leads to San Diego-based Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer), who is arrested by US Drug Enforcement Agency operatives Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzmán). Ruiz agrees to testify against Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), a major local drug trafficker. Ayala is arrested, and all of a sudden his pregnant wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) finds out where her opulent lifestyle comes from. Meanwhile, Ohio judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is appointed national drug czar by the President...while, unknown to him, his teenage daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is being led by her boyfriend Seth (Topher Grace) into trying out heroin and freebasing cocaine...

Steven Soderbergh (who is his own cinematographer under the nom-de-camera Peter Andrews) films these interlocking storylines with a camera style influenced by documentaries and the Danish dogme films: hand-held camera, wide lenses, mostly available light. In the interests of realism, the Mexican characters speak Spanish when they're meant to, which means that about a third of the film is subtitled. Soderbergh also colour-codes locations (not storylines): Mexico is shot on grainy stock through a tobacco filter, while Washington DC is rendered a cold blue. The other locations are more naturally coloured. Soderbergh has used this technique before: unless you count the colour sequence in the otherwise black-and-white Kafka, it first appeared in Underneath and later featured, rather more subtly, in Out of Sight. Although this device is legitimate, it does seem selfconscious and is distracting at first.

However, the constant cutting between the storylines means that the pace rarely lets up; Traffic is a long film, but it's unusual in today's Hollywood that it needs its extra running-time. Soderbergh's great ability with actors is well to the fore: there's hardly a false note in the huge, triple-figure cast (with one uncredited big name, Salma Hayek). Particular praise should go to Benicio Del Toro (most of whose dialogue is in Spanish; he won a Supporting Actor Oscar for this performance) but everyone is good. Catherine Zeta-Jones, an actress I've never previously rated, is impressive: add her to the list of actresses who have done their best work for this director. The Robert Wakefield plotline (which is the closest to its equivalent in the original miniseries) may veer close to TV movie territory; on the other hand, the Mexican plotline is the most morally complex. Some concentration is required to keep up with all of this, but Traffic grips from start to finish. It’s a film on a vital subject that doesn’t insult your intelligence by pretending to have easy answers. Traffic is made by adults for adults.

This is an EIV DVD, so some will no doubt have issues with the packaging. But inside the quote-heavy cover is a very worthwhile DVD, which is currently (though not for much longer – see below) the best available version. The transfer is in the correct aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphic. It’s a very good transfer, as you would and should expect for such a recent film, It’s faithful to the way Traffic looked on a cinema screen, from the rich colours and solid blacks of the scenes set in the Wakefields’ home, to the intentionally grainy and contrasty Mexico scenes. Some aliasing and shimmering prevent me giving it full marks. Another drawback are the subtitles in the Spanish-language sections. They are presumably from a subtitled internegative from which the DVD master print was struck, and as a result are rather too small and occasionally hard to read. There are regrettably no other subtitles. The chapter search page allows you to search by colour code (fourteen for tobacco, eleven for blue, nineteen for natural). However, these searches only take you to the beginning of the appropriate one of only twenty chapters, meaning you’ll have to fast forward to the tobacco, blue or natural-colour scene. This is certainly miserly: Chapter 16 runs nearly nineteen minutes.

The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.1. Most of the time this film is effectively centre-channel mono, which adds to the documentary-like feel of the film. There are some directional effects, but not many. The surrounds are used for Cliff Martinez’s score, which occasionally takes over the soundtrack entirely. The subwoofer comes into its own with some deep bass notes, not to mention adding a considerable kick to certain gunshots. There is a French release with a DTS soundtrack, but it’s hard to imagine that being a great improvement, as this film won’t test your system to its utmost. (The French release also has locked French subtitles, which is bad news if you don’t speak Spanish.)

Soderbergh has recorded some excellent commentaries in the past, in tandem with another person (often the scriptwriter), so it’s disappointing to see that there isn’t one on this DVD, as there wasn’t on the Erin Brockovich DVD. However, its place is taken by some unusually thorough extras. First of all is a trailer, in 1.85:1 anamorphic and Dolby Surround, running 2:14. This makes the film look more of an action piece than it actually is (and note no Spanish dialogue is included). As usual, this contains many shots that would be major spoilers if you knew their context. Also note the subtle deletion of the word “cocaine” from the scene showing a the demonstration of a new transportation method, undoubtedly to avoid giving the trailer a restrictive certificate.

The real meat of the extras is in the production notes, which are very thorough and tell you probably all you’d need to know about how the film was made. The downside is that pages of text aren’t easy on the eye on a TV screen, and aren’t really a substitute for the personal touch that a good commentary or making-of documentary would bring. The notes are in three sections: “Getting Started”, “Assembling the Team” and “About the Production”. The interviews are not much more than EPK material, but the DVD earns points for exhaustiveness in the number of interviewees: Douglas, Cheadle, Del Toro, Quaid, Zeta-Jones, Soderbergh, Christensen, Grace, Guzmán, Amy Irving (who plays Wakefield’s wife), Gaghan, and producers Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz and Laura Bickford. The interviews are presented in anamorphic 16:9 and run in total 21:21; usefully, the question being answered is displayed as a caption on the screen.

The deleted scenes give this DVD the edge over the current R1 release. There are twenty-four of them, presented in 16:9 anamorphic with 2.0 mono sound. These are all very short: the total running time is only 24:53. However, an optional director’s commentary (as with the equivalent feature on the Erin Brockovich DVD) would have been nice, to give us some reasons why these scenes were cut out. Much of the time you can guess, though, particularly as Traffic is a long enough film already. The B-Roll (anamorphic 16:9, 2.0 mono sound, running 14:27) is nothing to get excited about: just behind-the-scenes footage. You’re unlikely to watch this more than once, but don’t watch it at all before seeing the film itself, as some of the scenes we see being filmed constitute major spoilers.

The biographies are fairly standard, but are commendably plentiful, thirty in all (fifteen cast, fifteen crew). The Easter Egg can be found here: go to Catherine Zeta-Jones’s name, press left and enter, and you get a brief out-take where an actor asks for her autograph while the cameras were rolling.

The definitive DVD of Traffic looks like it will be the forthcoming USA Films/Criterion edition, which contains amongst other things three commentaries. Despite its shortcomings, EIV’s edition is a more than worthwhile substitute. Not to mention probably cheaper: you should be able to find this for £10 or less.

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