It's interesting to look at the ebb and flow of Steven Soderbergh's career. He started out defining low budget filmmaking. His debut feature 'Sex, Lies, and Videotape,' was the first "independent" success (it even scored an original screenplay nomination). After that, he sort of puttered around, doing interesting low budget movies like the coming-of-age drama 'King of the Hill' (which has been on pay cable a lot lately and is crying out for a Criterion release – it's never been on DVD even) and the deeply personal, deeply strange 'Schizopolis.' He seemed to get his mojo back with 1998's 'Out of Sight,' almost ten years after 'Sex, Lies, and Videotape's' initial breakthrough.
From then until his commercial peak in 2001 with 'Ocean's Eleven,' he was more or less unstoppable. Only after he scored with 'Ocean's Eleven' did he slide back into the obscure waters that defined him initially. Movies like 'Solaris,' 'Bubble,' and 'Che' were artistic successes, but didn't make much of an impact with moviegoers. In fact, he's currently so far afield (his last movies were the prostitution drama 'The Girlfriend Experience' and the wacky whistleblower comedy 'The Informant!') that it's hard to think of Soderbergh as an Oscar-winning director. But he is.
And the movie that scored him that distinction was 2000's multilayered drug drama 'Traffic.' Based on a British miniseries of the same name (only spelled differently), it was nominated for five Academy Awards and won four of them – Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Bafflingly, it lost Best Picture to Ridley Scott's overblown drive-in movie 'Gladiator.'
Let's think about that Best Picture winner/loser scenario for just a minute. 'Traffic,' with its fractured storyline, heavily processed look, and socially conscious themes, seemed like a movie ahead of its time that would go on to influence a whole squad of similar movies (among them, future Best Picture winner 'Crash'). By comparison, 'Gladiator' seems like an antique. Besides some minor technological advancement and snappier editing and, what, exactly, differentiates it from old Hollywood bores like 'Ben Hur?' Not much.
'Traffic's' plot is wild and labyrinthine but never unwieldy. It's about the war on drugs (circa 2000) and features a number of storylines, which can be lumped together into three main threads (basically broken down into 'buying,' 'selling,' and 'policing'). The first follows Michael Douglas as the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy aka the Drug Czar. There's a fair amount of political machinations in this section of the movie and many real politicians make appearances on screen (in a precursor to Soderbergh's short lived HBO series 'K Street'). While he is trying desperately to get a handle on the so-called war on drugs a war rages within his own home, when his teenage daughter Erika Christensen becomes an addict. In one of the film's most compelling sequences, Douglas drives the streets of D.C. looking for his runaway daughter.
The second storyline involves a Mexican police officer (Benicio del Toro, who won the Oscar for his perfectly modulated performance) attempting to crack down on drug related crime on both sides of the border. This section of the film is almost entirely in subtitles and carries with it a distinctive, bleached out look. (It helped to create a kind of visual shorthand for each setting/storyline.) The Mexico storyline is easily the most compelling, both because of del Toro's affecting performance and the cool-ass look of that section. Also, and I had completely forgotten about this until I rewatched it the other day, Salma Hayek has a role as a drug kingpin's wife.
The third thread is the most obviously thriller-y of all three. This section of the movie involves Catherine Zeta-Jones as a woman living in America and whose husband (Steven Bauer) is arrested for being a drug kingpin himself. She turns to Dennis Quaid, who is her lawyer and also her husband's drug dealer. While it is ostensibly about Zeta-Jones' character, it hinges more on Don Cheadle and Luiz Guzman as a couple of DEA agents on the case. Their friendship/partnership in a weird way emotionally anchors this section of the movie and makes for all of the more obvious stuff (hitmen, double crosses, assassination attempts etc.) more forgivable.
The different storylines dovetail and converge in some really nice and interesting ways and as it stands, 'Traffic' remains a better movie than most of what would follow it ('21 Grams,' 'Crash' etc.) It was a movie ahead of its time and also very much of its time. As one of Soderbergh's crowning achievements, it demands to be re-watched and studied a number of times over. For a movie as big and sprawling as this one, what really strikes me is how resonant some of the emotional beats of the movie are. They stay with you even longer than Soderbergh's technical derring do and his deftness at this type of narrative. It's a modern day classic. It's just not, you know, Best Picture material.
The VC-1 encoded, 1080p transfer (1.85:1 aspect ratio) transfer is generally quite good.
To explain, all the benchmarks are there: skin tones look great, detail is nice (although Miguel Ferrer's shirt kind of 'strobes' in a later scene) and generally things look somewhat 'sharper' than in previous home video versions. There's a fair amount of grain, which is to be expected, with the Mexican sequences looking grainy and blown out to the max, which is how things were intended.
Is this Soderbergh's preferred "look" of the movie? Or just a 1080p upgrade? I'm not really sure. Most of the voluminous special features that were on the Criterion DVD release from a few years ago are nowhere to be found, and there are no new supplemental materials produced for this release, which makes me question whether or not Soderbergh had any say in the transfer, which leaves me to question whether or not this is really the "truest" version of 'Traffic' to hit home video (like it should be).
Technically, there's nothing really wrong with this disc either. I didn't pick up on any issues that weren't the direct result of something that the filmmakers were going for. If things look "soft" or "blurry" then they were probably meant to be that way, and play into Soderbergh's roughhewn style for the film.
I'm just torn as to whether or not this is the most exemplary version of the film or not. If Steven wants to call me on the phone, I'm ready to hear all about it.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track also sounds good, but I can't help but feel that it could be better. (Especially because some online are saying the Canadian release had a better track.)
There's a lot going on in 'Traffic,' and this mix handles things well. Dialogue (of which there is a lot) is always clear and well prioritized, it has a nice depth as well as some good range and is overall a fairly immersive listening experience. Additionally, Cliff Martinez' minimalistic score really shines through. It is a really beautiful, unique score, and one I hadn't thought about in some time. But rewatching it for this review I was struck by how powerful it was (and how good it sounds on this disc).
That said, some of the scenes could have used a bit more sonic oomph and the surround moments could have been more impressive and full bodied. Still, there's nothing outwardly wrong with the track. Just like the video, I was pretty jazzed by the mix here, although I wonder if it couldn't have been improved some.
Alternate audio tracks are an English DTS-HD 2.0 track and a French DTS 5.1. Subtitles are in English SDH, French, and Spanish (all the Mexican stuff is subtitled in English, you don't have a choice with that).
Balls. This follows the tradition of 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' (which I also reviewed – coincidence, I think not), in terms of a Criterion DVD being transferred to Blu-ray by the company that originally produced the movie and totally jettisoning all the stuff that made the Criterion release so special. Here's the stuff that's not on the Blu-ray but is on the two-disc Criterion DVD from a few years ago: Three commentary tracks: director Steven Soderbergh, writer Stepehn Gaghan; producers Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, and Laura Bickford and consultants Tim Golden and Craig Chretien; composer Cliff Martinez (featuring two music cues not included in the final film); a reduced 2.0 dynamic range home video mix; Film processing demonstration: achieving the look of the Mexico sequences; editing demonstration with commentary from editor Stephen Mirrione; dialogue editing demonstration with sound editor Larry Blake; 30 minutes of additional footage featuring multiple angles from the scenes of the El Paso Intelligence Center (doesn't this make 'Breaking Bad' make more sense? Why all the DEA guys on the show want to get to El Paso?) and the cocktail party where U.S. Senators, major politicians, lobbyists, and others express their views on the drug war; theatrical and television trailers; U.S. Customs trading cards of the K-9 squad used in the detection of narcotics and illegal substances.
Oh but don't worry there's a terrible EPK on here that wasn't on the Criterion set (but was most likely on the original DVD release). So get ready for that!
Also, this thing is BD-Live ready but at the time of this review no additional content was being provided. (Editor's Note: Anybody else sick of this being all but the norm?!!)
Steven Soderbergh's masterful 'Traffic' is a modern day classic, a movie both sprawling and intimate, one that's frequently imitated but never topped. Unfortunately, with questionable audio and video and very little in the way of supplements, it's hard to do anything but offer the meekest of recommendations. If you're curious about the transfer, definitely give it a spin. Just hold onto your Criterion set too.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.