Steven Soderbergh's 2000 remake of the late eighties German TV series, Traffik,uses a series of intertwining stories to paint a broader picture of how factions of the American government try to combat the flow of illegal narcotics into the country. The picture focuses on an Ohio Supreme Court judge named Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) who has recently been put in charge of 'the war on drugs' but his life becomes complicated when he learns that his teenage daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) has a cocaine problem. The fact that his wife (Amy Irving) thinks that it's okay for Caroline to be experimenting obviously becomes another source of stress for him.
While Wakefield deals with his professional and personal problems, a pair of DEA agents named Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) are chasing a woman named Helena Ayala (Catharine Zeta-Jones) who is married to a drug kingpin named Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer) who is currently behind bars. Since her husband has gone to jail, Helena has decided to take over with some help from her lawyer (Dennis Quaid). Meanwhile, in Mexico, a police officer named Javier Rodriguez (Benecio Del Toro) is trying to sort out complicated personal and moral issues of his own when he and his partner (Jacob Vargas) learn that General Arturo Salazar (Tomas Milian) wants to shut down their force and concentrate on capturing a hitman (Clifton Collins Jr.).
Despite the A-list cast of Hollywood names, Traffic is a pretty unconventional film in a lot of ways. It's a dark film, shot in a gritty and unappealing documentary style with a fair bit of shaky-cam work and a dirty, dark tone and feel to it. It's a grim film, one that tackles the dubious morality of its characters and their positions in the drug war with an unapologetically realistic view in that it's basically shown to be a war that we're not going to win.
Soderburgh's film is all over the place visually. Shot by the director himself, it can be a weird film to watch as the colors are constantly being manipulated and can run the gamut from hot to cold and hit every hue in between from scene to scene. The eclectic style suits the film as it changes from story to story to story as the plots co-mingle and eventually become a cohesive whole, but it requires an investment from the viewer - not surprisingly, this isn't a film for the attention deficit crowd and if you don't stick with it you can get lost.
That said, it's a rewarding picture in many ways. As far as the performances go, everyone here brings their best to the screen. Soderbergh has a knack for getting great work from almost every actor he's ever worked with and Traffic is no exception. Douglas is excellent as the man conflicted by his professional life and his personal life, a theme which extends quite nicely into the storyline involving Zeta-Jones as she wrestles with the reality her world has become. Del Toro, a consistently good performer by any standard, has a great role here and makes the most out of it, playing his character as tough enough to be believable in the part but with an intelligence and emotion that makes him more interesting and sets him apart from other big screen cops. He won an Oscar for his turn in this picture, and he completely deserved it. There's not a single bad performance in the film, which is pretty remarkable when dealing with a cast as large as the one that Soderbergh has assembled for this picture.
The film has a couple of issues - for example, it's certainly a remarkably convenient plot device that the teenage daughter of the biggest guy in the country's anti-drug crusade would develop a drug problem - but generally the film does feel very believable and on top of that it manages to tackle its subject without preaching to its audience. Rather than deal out heavy handed messages or force its morality down the viewers' throats, the film instead lets us make up our own minds about the questions that it raises.
Universal presents Traffic on Blu-ray in a VC-1 encoded 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen 1080p high definition transfer that looks as noisy and grainy as you'd expect it to. Soderbergh shot this film with a specific look in mind and that look is replicated here which may irk those who expect all of their high definition content to look clean and pristine. There's a lot of grain and grit here and the image has a dirty look to it that fits the context of the story quite well but which also obscures some fine detail. Colors have been tweaked and tinkered with quite a bit and don't always look clean or natural but rather hot and/or fairly faded. It works alongside the director's sometimes gritty aesthetic but this isn't the type of film you're going to use to show off your HDTV. It does offer a noticeable upgrade from the standard definition DVD release in that there is more detail and the higher bit rate makes for a much smoother encoding job, but the often times shaky camera work and dirty look of the film doesn't always lend itself to HD as well as other films do. It's hard to say for sure without the HD-DVD on hand to compare it to, but it's probably safe to assume that this Blu-ray transfer looks very close to Universal's HD-DVD transfer (which was also mastered using the VC-1 codec).
The DVD side of the flipper disc presents the film in a standard definition 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen progressive scan transfer that looks just fine but which pales in comparison to the enhanced detail and clarity offered by the Blu-ray version.
The primary audio mix offered on this disc is an English language 48 kHz 1.5 Mbps DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track, though an English DTS-HD 2.0 track is also included, as is a standard definition French language DTS 5.1 Surround Sound mix. Subtitles are offered in English SDH, French and Spanish. The audio on the Blu-ray is very good in that it doesn't suffer from any muffled dialogue, hiss or distortion issues. At the same time, surround activity is minimal. You'll notice the rear speakers here and there but this isn't a particularly aggressive mix and it's almost always front heavy. What's here is fine and it sounds good enough, but again, it's not going to serve as demo material. You won't have any problems understanding the performers and when parts of the film are spoken in Spanish, English subtitles automatically appear in the frame to translate.
The DVD side of the disc features English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and an English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track with subtitles in English SDH, French and Spanish. Obviously the Blu-ray's uncompressed track offers an upgrade.
First up is a featurette entitled Inside Traffic (18:53), which is a decent look at the making of the feature. This mini-documentary originally aired on the Showtime Channel and it does contain some welcome behind the scenes footage and some moderately interesting interviews with the key cast and crew members, but sometimes ventures into self-promotional territory and it tends to be fairly clip heavy.
Universal has also ported over roughly twenty six minutes of deleted scenes (twenty-four scenes in total, each one quite brief). Aside from that, look for some trailers for unrelated Universal films that play before you get to the menu screen, some animated menus, chapter stops, and some Blu-ray Live connectivity. All of the extras on the Blu-ray side (and obviously the DVD side) are identical (save for the menus and Blu-ray Live option) and presented in standard definition. Unfortunately, just as it was with Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, the wealth of extra features from the Criterion Collection standard definition DVD release have not been ported over, so those who want all the details and facts on the film will want to hang on to that set for that reason.
You can't really fault Universal for presenting Traffic as the gritty, dirty looking film that it is on this Blu-ray release. Extras, however, are disappointingly slim when compared to the Criterion release. The high definition 1080p transfer does offer a noticeable upgrade from the standard definition DVD, which is included on the flipside of the same disc, but those happy with their HD-DVD release could probably make do with that. Regardless, the movie itself is a good one that uses an excellent cast to tell a tense and dramatic story. It's entirely worth seeing and whatever issues you may have with the disc can easily be overlooked when you take the quality of the feature into account. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.