TRAFFIC – Blu-ray review

It has been a couple years since I watched “Traffic.” There have been a few times I’ve wanted to throw the disc in and sit back and kill nearly three hours. Usually I am wondering whatever happened to Steven Soderbergh after he had long been one of the biggest filmmakers in Hollywood. Aside from his two “Ocean’s Eleven” sequels, Soderbergh hasn’t done anything worthy of my attention since the two films in 2002, “Solaris” and “Full Frontal.” “Traffic” was released directly after “Erin Brockovich” earned Soderbergh his first Best Director statue and he struck gold by winning the Oscar for “Traffic.” I’ve heard good things about “Che,” but unless you were looking you probably never heard of that biographical project starring Benicio Del Toro. Aside from the Ocean’s films, Soderbergh has become transparent after his back-to-back Oscar nominations.

I think of former Academy Award Winner for Best Picture, “Crash” and I see many parallels in the structure between that excellent film and Steven Soderbergh´s powerful “Traffic.” Taking a deep and provocative look at the war of drugs through a series of interrelated stories, “Traffic” combines excellent storytelling with a wonderful ensemble cast. Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Luis Guzman, Dennis Quaid and Catharine Zeta-Jones provide the star power in this intricate web of corruption and perseverance. “Traffic” paints a picture that tells how far reaching the problem of drugs is and how complicated any attempt at solving the problem really is. “Traffic” is ambitious in the scope of its plot. Hence, one of its strengths may also be one of its greatest weaknesses. I can imagine a large number of viewers that can be lost in its convoluted scenes or lose interest at its detailed pace and miss intricate details important to understanding the plot as it evolves.

“Traffic” is the kind of story that is very hard to describe in the limited space of a Blu-ray review. Essentially, Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is appointed by the president to be the new Drug Czar. He is to spearhead the war on drugs and turn the tide in the losing battle. However, drugs find themselves invading his own household and he must face problems in his own home while he is looking into problems in Mexico and abroad. Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) is a Mexican policeman who works above the law when necessary, but finds himself being pulled in by the DEA to help fight the problems of drugs. Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) are DEA agents who are assigned to run surveillance on the home of a notorious drug runner. His wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is struggling with the realization of her husband’s problems and having to deal with them while he is incarcerated. Arnie Metzger (Dennis Quaid) is her lawyer and her husband´s friend.

The story is convoluted. It is deep. Compared to “Crash,” “Traffic” is far more complex and where the Best Picture winner dealt with racism and how people handle racism based upon changing situations and environments, “Traffic” tries to tackle the ineptitude of the war on drugs. Where it may not be as socially controversial as the themes in “Crash,” it is a more complex problem to bring to the screen. The amount of exposition and background information required to set up events and situations is enormous. You can´t simply assume that a Mexican police officer can be both corrupt and a good cop with one simple scene. You need a few situations to bring background and life to the character. It is far easier to show that a cop is racist with a simple highway pullover. I´m not knocking “Crash,” I enjoyed that film tremendously, but I feel it is far more accessible to the general public and an easier pill to swallow than the deep and detailed “Traffic.”

Characters develop as the plot thickens. Robert Wakefield must come to terms with his daughter´s addiction and it affects how he handles his job as the Drug Czar. Javier finds himself questioning his own role in policework and challenging himself to take a larger role in the war against drugs and putting him in a more distinguished crossfire. The largest character arc is that of Catherine Zeta-Jones character. She must move beyond being the pregnant housewife and start to run the business left behind by her husband. Where Helena is frantic and vulnerable when her husband is first nabbed by the DEA, she becomes perhaps even more brutal and vicious in her resolve than her husband. As characters are faced more increasingly difficult and painful situations, their attitudes change and their views towards their vocation and beliefs are challenged.

The actors of “Traffic” are the greatest asset of the story. Don Cheadle is among one of my favorite actors. The man is brilliant. Benicio Del Toro, Luis Guzman and Michael Douglas are all wonderful actors and their performances in “Traffic” are among the best in each of their careers. Not enough can be said about Catherine Zeta-Jones. She was pregnant with her husband, Michael Douglas´ baby and while going through the later stages of her pregnancy, she put forth a hell of a fine performance. The supporting cast is great as well. The young and lovely Erika Chistensen does a fine job as the troubled and addicted daughter of Robert Wakefield. Amy Irving, Albert Finney, James Brolin and Benjamin Bratt are other familiar faces. The always entertaining Miguel Ferrer is part of the film. Miguel Ferrer is the kind of actor that deserves a spot in any film. The man is seriously underutilized by Hollywood. He is really good in his portrayal of informant Eduardo Ruiz.

“Traffic” is a movie I have always enjoyed. With such great performances and a very interesting and detailed plot, it is a movie that is easily appreciated, no matter how many times you watch it. It is not a perfect movie and in some ways I feel it is seriously flawed. The direction and cinematography by Steven Soderbergh leaves a lot to be desired. Filmed in a documentary style and using heavy hues of blue and yellow to depict different locations and segmented components of the plot, “Traffic” is not the best looking film to swallow. It is not as visually stressing as “The Blair Witch Project,” but I have always wished that “Traffic” had been made with a completely different visual style. The film can be visually boring and though Soderbergh brought a wonderful story to life, he did so with taste I question with each viewing. Blu-ray and the previous HD-DVD release do not do the film justice because of the methods used by Soderbergh in his filming, but it’s a good time none-the-less.

Video:

I´ve already stated that I am not a huge fan of the video composition for the film “Traffic.” Soderbergh intentionally color-coded his subplots by making each distinct portion of the film a different color. For instance, Michael Douglas´ character´s world is very blue in colors. Everything is bluish in color. It is like you are wearing heavy blue tinted sunglasses. The level of detail in is world is fairly good. Once you travel to Mexico and find the camera along the cactus and sand, Yellow is the dominant color. The cameras used during the Mexican scene are very blurry and not nearly as detailed. Even the English subtitles are intentionally not as sharp. The Mexican moments are horribly grainy and rough looking. Where plotlines begin to cross, the hue abuse is not as prevalent and far more lifelike. There are hints of the colors from their respective storylines, but generally cross-story scenes are more typical to what a film typically looks like.

The last time I reviewed “Traffic” in high definition I had a 720p television and my Samsung player wasn’t quite as good as my Panasonic player I now use. The film looks better in 1080p, but the film grain and rough documentary style of the film still makes the high definition transfer less than impressive. This is now flaw of the transfer, but of the filming. There is good detail in many scenes, but you can definitely spot the grain on Blu-ray. Watching the film a second time in high definition, I have noticed far more detail than I can recall from my previous viewing when I felt the transfer was hardly better than DVD. Unfortunately, my HD-DVD disc doesn’t want to boot up and perhaps Universal has remastered the film for Blu-ray. Colors are strong, but stylized to help set the mood in the scenes. Black levels are good and I’m going to now give this transfer a lot more credit, regardless of the stylistic hindrances of the cinematography.

Audio:

The audio portion of the release is problematic to review as well due to the sound design, dialogue heavy sequences and relaxed film score by Cliff Martinez. The Blu-ray release contains an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix as well as an English DTS-HD 2.0 soundtrack and I’m puzzled by that inclusion, but expect there are people who do not have Blu-ray players mated to a full home theater setup. This is a transfer where there are a couple gun shots, but the strong majority of the mix is dialogue that is anchored in the center channel. The rear channels do provide some ambience and though they are not used heavily by the film, they are noticeable. Martinez’s score comes across wonderfully and nicely sets the mood for many of the film´s scenes. It is neither grandiose nor simple, but fitting. “Traffic” is a good sounding film, but its documentary style keeps the mix in check and the transfer doesn’t necessarily stand out, but it is efficient and performs as required.

Extras:

“Traffic” on Blu-ray is a new combo-format release whereas the DVD platter is glued to the rear of the Blu-ray disc. With the manufacturing difficulties or former impossibilities now a thing of the past, it appears that the 2-disc releases are now to follow HD-DVD and become faceless single disc releases with no disc art. I suppose progress is a good thing. The DVD side does not boot with any forced advertisements and the list of bonus features is perfectly identical unless you count the Blu-ray sides My Scenes bookmarking and BD-Live Center access a true special feature. I do like how things are balanced between the formats and hope the days of when you had to flip the disc over to the DVD side for the special features to be a thing of the past.

The new Blu-ray release does feature a slight upgrade in bonus content when compared to the former high definition release. It still cannot hold a candle to the excellent Criterion Collection release, but I assume Universal doesn’t want to pony up for those extras. The Blu-ray side boots with some previews for other films and it lacks the numerous trailers that were contained on the HD-DVD. The first bonus item under the “Extras” menu is an awesome collection of twenty four Deleted Scenes (26:04). This content was not on the HD-DVD and more than makes up for the missing trailers. “Traffic” is a long film and I’ve love to see a longer cut, but this is certainly a nice upgrade. Inside Traffic (18:53) is carried over from the previous editions and this EPK-style making of feature was a production of Showtime and isn’t anything exciting.

Closing:

“Traffic” is a great film and I’ve enjoyed it greatly over the past decade. It has been a couple years since I last took time to sit down and enjoy director Steven Soderbergh’s masterpiece and looking back to the time when he was one of Hollywood’s top directors I wonder what ever happened to the master storyteller. The plot is heavy and there are numerous characters, but this is one of those films you can watch again and again and always learn something new. He has not created anything nearly as powerful or captivating as this star-laden film. The only thing I’ve never fully embraced with “Traffic” is the documentary style filmmaking that is rough and jumpy in appearance. This doesn’t translate to the best looking or sounding Blu-ray release, but Universal did reintroduce the very good collection of deleted scenes that were absent from the previous HD-DVD release. I still want to see a better release of this film on video to replace my Criterion Collection DVD release, but this is at least the best looking and sounding version of the film.

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