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  Directed by
  Starring
  Specs
  • Widescreen 1.78:1
  • 16:9 Enhanced
  • Dual Layer (RSDL 88.12)
  Languages
  • English: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  Subtitles
    English - Hearing Impaired
  Extras
  • Theatrical trailer

Traffic

Initial Entertainment Group/Roadshow Entertainment . R4 . COLOR . 141 mins . MA15+ . PAL

  Feature
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If there’s one thing that almost every nation on earth has in common, it’s a dislike of the distribution and use of illegal drugs - in itself not a recent phenomenon, but certainly one which has both escalated and been given a substantially higher profile in the last century. How each country’s government and law enforcement body deals with the issue differs greatly - in some places, drug users and dealers alike are summarily executed, in others they’re locked away in jail for the rest of their lives. And yet the use and abuse of drugs continues unabated.

In the US, illegal drugs have been given the highest of profiles, with successive governments’ pursuit of what they describe as the “war on drugs” ostensibly tackling the problem at its source, but in the process snaring users and addicts as well. And while the drug use problem in the US is often perceived as mainly affecting the poor and the lower classes, there are tens of thousands of young, white, middle class people spending years in jail in the US for the very same reason. And yet nothing seems to stop the flow of drugs into the US and out to the users.

It’s very telling that many people in high places in the US found Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic an eye-opening experience, as though they’d never considered any of the truths about drug use before, and needed a fictional film to get the point across for them. Based on a 1989 British television mini-series named Traffik - but extensively reworked by screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, who won an Oscar for his trouble - Traffic takes in the different sides of the “war on drugs”, presenting them as simultaneous and separate (but occasionally interlinked) stories. Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) is a Mexican police officer who is fighting the drug battle at the source, trying to deal with people intending to traffic drugs across the Mexico-US border but finding the rampant corruption of local authorities an even greater challenge. Meanwhile, Supreme Court judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) has been named as the new “drug tzar” in the US, put in charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency even as his daughter Caroline, unbeknownst to him, is on a downward spiral of drug experimentation and, ultimately, crack cocaine addiction. Elsewhere, two DEA officers are guarding a captured dealer, Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer), who plans to testify against the “Mr Big” of his drug syndicate - if he survives. And the wife of that “Mr Big”, Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is about to find out that the husband she trusted and loved was actually a career criminal; she has some choices of her own to make to ensure her survival, as everything her husband owned is seized by authorities.

A tangled web this may be in story terms, but Gaghan’s screenplay pulls together the seemingly disparate elements of the wider storyline with effortless ease - many films that have attempted to interweave stories and events on such a scale have become mired in names, facts and details, but here there’s a natural flow to events that makes Traffic a far easier movie to watch than many would have you believe (indeed, the most often-used word in reviews of the film upon its release was “complex”, which also pops up on the back cover of the DVD). The many locations and sets of characters, meanwhile, are delineated not only by on-screen titles, but also by the photographic style. Soderbergh makes extensive use of extreme cinematography - the Mexican scenes are grainy, contrasty and yellow-saturated, while those scenes involving Douglas’ character are often represented by the use of very artificial processing, draining almost all the colour from the image but leaving cold blues and shades of green. The DEA agents pursue their quarry in natural colour, but with a documentary-like use of overexposure that sees bright elements in the image bloom and distort; cameras are, of course, largely hand-held. In visual terms Traffic offers some incredible imagery, used not as a gimmick but as a real aid to the storytelling and to enhance the intended mood of each individual scene. Unconventional film stock - including Ektachrome reversal film - is used throughout. This masterful cinematography is credited to one “Peter Andrews”; in fact, the movie was lensed by Soderbergh himself in true auteur fashion.

Not everything here is perfect - there’s a faintly moralistic tone running through much of the movie, and though a lot of that’s an intrinsic part of the story - after all, we’re dealing with a very moralistic subject here - the closing sequences of Traffic tend to wrap things up a little too neatly, especially considering the circumstances that have gone before. Catherine Zeta-Jones’ character undergoes a radical transformation in a split second, one which is ultimately unconvincing (though it wouldn’t be surprising if some more explanatory material was left on the cutting room floor). Those are minor complaints, though - loaded with a terrific, believable ensemble cast and directed with absolute assurance (and more than a few nods to the work of Michael Mann, Lars von Trier and Oliver Stone) by Soderbergh, Traffic is modern dramatic cinema at its finest, as well as being one of the most technically fascinating things to arrive in cinemas in the last few years.

  Video
Contract

Presented at 1.78:1 and 16:9 enhanced, Traffic on DVD was always going to be a challenge for the telecine team as well as the compression people that worked on the disc. And to those used to seeing modern Hollywood films presented with razor-sharp clarity and so-real-you-could-touch-it resolution, the opening scenes of this disc are likely to frighten the hell out of some. Yet this is how Traffic is supposed to look - extreme colour and contrast, grain, washed-out scenes, people with unexpectedly purple skin, it’s all intentional.

Roadshow’s disc represents the intended look of the film stunningly well - this is very difficult material to encode for DVD, but aside from a few instances of minor aliasing there are no problems here at all. Those wondering whether the actual transfer is really as good as it gets should wait for the action to move away from Mexico, where the true clarity of what’s on offer becomes fully apparent.

The layer change appears at 88.12, and while reasonably well placed at the end of a scene it does take a little longer for the player to navigate than usual.

Incidentally, while the film’s run time is quoted on the back cover as being 124 minutes, those worried about this being a shorter version of Traffic need not panic - the actual running time is the full (for PAL) 141 minutes it’s supposed to be.

  Audio
Contract

Aside from the music score, the audio for Traffic was mixed almost entirely in mono - an approach that lends a semi-documentary feel to proceedings as well as focussing the audience’s attention firmly on the all-important dialogue. In many ways this is a similar style of sound mix to that done for Lars von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark, which also restricted itself to mono audio with a 5.1 musical score.

The score for Traffic was composed by Cliff Martinez, an experienced film score composer who also happens to have been a member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers for some years. His work here is perfect for the movie - atmospheric, often ominous and making extensive use of very deep bass as well as ambient guitar textures, it genuinely enhances the viewer’s involvement in the film. There are some similarities to the more low-key solo work of Brian Eno, and so it’s no big surprise to find an offering from Eno himself amongst the music here. Soderbergh has wisely resisted the usual Hollywood urge to licence pop songs by the dozen and generate a chart-directed soundtrack album; such a move would have seriously dated this film in coming years.

  Extras
Contract

Unlike the region 1 version of the Traffic DVD, Roadshow’s offering comes almost entirely devoid of extra features - an unusual thing for this generally extras-savvy company. And it’s not like there wasn’t any room for them - the dual-layered disc has a good 2.5GB of unused space going begging.

That said, the extra material on the US disc was hardly compelling: most notable was a “making-of” featurette that from all reports followed the usual cheesy EPK style of such things. Soderbergh did not record a commentary track for this release, which is a huge shame - with the man also in charge of the astonishing photography it would have been wonderful to get some insight into both his methods and his reasons for them.

As it stands, all region 4 viewers get as extra material is a full-frame theatrical trailer, along with the usual Dolby Digital trailer preceding the film (in this case it’s “Canyon”).

  Overall  
Contract

As a director, Steven Soderbergh goes from strength to strength with every movie, effortlessly stepping back and forth across the line between art-house and mainstream. One of the few real innovators working in mainstream Hollywood - as well as a true “actor’s director” - Soderbergh has crafted a stunning, multi-layered and richly textured work in Traffic, a movie that’s as fascinating visually as it is compelling dramatically. Roadshow’s DVD, while essentially feature-free, presents the film the way it was meant to be seen, and does so extremely well.


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      And I quote...
    "A movie that’s as fascinating visually as it is compelling dramatically..."
    - Anthony Horan
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    • Audio Cables:
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    • Video Cables:
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