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Blu-ray Review: Traffic

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"Drugs are bad. Mmm-kay?"  — Mr. Mackey, South Park

Traffic is a highly stylized and cautionary tale about the current drug trade from director Steven Soderbergh. It was a 2001 Best Picture Oscar nominee, and walked away with four Oscar wins for Best Director, Best Editing, Best Supporting Actor (Benicio Del Toro), and Best Adapted Screenplay. It contains a sprawling web of plots and a host of characters, led by Benicio Del Toro, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Don Cheadle, Dennis Quaid, Luis Guzman, and Topher Grace. The Blu-ray release is the latest in Universal's offerings of "flipper" discs, which contain both the Blu-ray and standard DVD versions of the film on opposite sides of the same disc.

Movie

Traffic is another entry in the grouping of films that contain a myriad of plots and characters that lightly connect to form a greater whole. While films such as Babel and Magnolia take that approach in more of an emotional direction, Traffic keeps things reined in by subject matter. Here we are treated to various facets of the drug trade between the United States and Mexico. We see it from various angles, from the Washington drug czar with a drug-addicted daughter, to an unsuspecting housewife who finds out about her dealer husband's business, to the California DEA agents who are on surveillance and witness protection duty, and finally to the Mexican cops who get caught in inter-cartel rivalries. The scenarios feel true-to-life, and are given depth by some truly impressive roles. Benicio Del Toro deserves pretty much any acting award on offer, and Michael Douglas and Don Cheadle turn in, as usual, very impressive performances. Soderbergh handles all of these interconnected stories with excellent pacing and style.

But the main problem with the film is in its very heavy-handed approach to the subject matter. More than just being cautionary, it's preachy. To its credit, it's an authentic and informed concern, but the delivery too often pushes it over into melodrama. The scenes involving the drug-addled teens have all the subtlety of an after-school special, and those centering around the informant under protection are so soaked in current events exposition that it's easy to lose the movie for the statistics exercise. It feels like really sloppy moments in something that could otherwise border on exceptional. But instead we have several tarnished edges to some fine filmmaking.

Video/Audio

The video transfer for this release may not be the super-clean version that some might hope for or expect, but what is there feels very true to the various looks of the film itself. Traffic contains a variety of visual styles, depending on the current location of the story. Scenes in Ohio and Washington are very stark and cleanly modern, while those taking place in Mexico are almost hyper-grainy, sepia-soaked, and blown out. The visual contrasts of the film are certainly intentional, and because of that come across as authentically transferred. Because of this, clean detail and contrast – and even film debris – vary depending on the scene you find yourself, but the overall result seems quite good.

Audio is rarely tested to any great extent. With the exception of a couple of gun- and explosion-heavy scenes, this is a dialogue-driven film that rarely taxes the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. This isn't the fault of what's provided, but just a note that it's really not the type of film with the capacity to take advantage of a souped-up sound system. But what's on offer does a perfectly fine job in the audio department, with the almost ambient musical score being a pleasant highlight.

Bonus Material

Supplemental offerings are small, but largely interesting, and are contained on both the Blu-ray and DVD sides of the disc. "Inside Traffic" (SD, 18:53) is your standard behind-the-scenes feature, and does a commendable job of profiling Soderbergh's directorial style, as well as giving a decent look at the making of the film itself. The "Deleted Scenes" (SD, 26:04) are a breath of fresh air from the stale offerings you normally find with movies, where they feel like they were left on the cutting room floor for pretty good reasons. But here, there are some very interesting scenes and dialogue exchanges that seem like they could have only been removed because the film had already met a self-imposed time cap. These are worthwhile scenes to dig into if you are a fan of the film.

Conclusion

Drugs are indeed bad, and we get a rather detailed lesson to that effect with Traffic. Is it heavy-handed and preachy? Yes, it is. Is it impeccably acted and well directed? Yes, it is that too. With this film you have to take the lumps with the good, so if you can look past several eye-rolling moments, you'll still be rewarded with a very quality film.

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About David R Perry