"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.
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.
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.