HTF DVD Review: TRAFFIK, Remastered 20th Anniversary Edition

Discussion in 'TV on DVD and Blu-ray' started by Michael Reuben, Sep 25, 2009.

  1. Michael Reuben

    Michael Reuben Studio Mogul

    Feb 12, 1998
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    Remastered 20th Anniversary Edition

    Studio: Acorn Media Group

    Rated: NR

    Film Length: app. 305 minutes

    Aspect Ratio: 4:3

    Audio: English DD 2.0 mono

    Subtitles: English SDH

    MSRP: $39.99

    Package: Box with 2 slimcases

    Insert: None

    Original Airdates (U.K.): June 19-July 24, 1989

    DVD Release Date: Sept. 29, 2009


    This is the original 1989 British miniseries that inspired the 2000 Steven Soderbergh film, which won four Oscars, and a 2004 remake for USA Network. The series was groundbreaking, because it was the first major work of popular entertainment to examine drug trafficking as a business rather than as an issue of social welfare or law enforcement.

    The Episodes:

    Each of Traffik’s six episodes is titled after a key player in the world comprising the drug trade:

    1. The Farmer

    2. The Addict

    3. The Criminal

    4. The Chemist

    5. The Politician

    6. The Courier

    Note that the order is neither logical nor chronological. Rather, Traffik’s ambition is to convey a sense of how all of these individuals act simultaneously, each only partially aware (at best) of the others. The goal is to give the audience a larger view than those commonly heard in debates over social policy. Ultimately, the perspective is a bleak one.

    The series unfolds in three locales. In Pakistan, a British minister, Jack Lithgow (Bill Paterson), is given a dog and pony show of the Pakistani government’s efforts to eradicate the opium poppy crop. With the brisk tone and officious manner that one expects from a civil servant, Lithgow asks questions and notes the answers, because it is his job to recommend whether to continue aid in support of Pakistan’s anti-drug programs. As Lithgow prepares to leave, however, a local farmer, Fazal (Jamal Shah), breaks through the cordon of guards to hand Lithgow a letter begging him to leave the opium farmers in peace. Growing poppies is their only means of supporting their families.

    Returning to England, Lithgow is suddenly confronted by a different face of the drug trade when his daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond, in her debut), is arrested at a university party. Lithgow is shocked to discover that Caroline has been using heroin for a year, with his wife’s knowledge, and he begins to get a hands-on education in the typical behavior of addicts. As the situation with Caroline deteriorates, Lithgow’s private life clashes more and more sharply with the demands of his official duties, in which he has to make such cold calculations as how much funding to allocate for customs officers’ salaries. (The officers think it’s not enough, and a work action ensues.) By the time Lithgow returns to Pakistan in episode 5 to sign the agreement that he was discussing when we first met him in episode 1, he is a changed man.

    Meanwhile, Fazal, having been evicted from his opium fields, travels to Karachi looking for work. He seeks out employment with Tariq Butt, a wealthy and well-connected businessman who also happens to be one of the biggest heroin dealers in Pakistan, and everyone knows it. Fazal’s efforts to ingratiate himself with Butt are successful, and Fazal earns enough to bring his wife and children to join him. Through Fazal’s eyes, we are shown much of Butt’s operation and the ruthlessness with which he runs it. In one remarkable sequence, Fazal is trained by a chemist in the manufacture of heroin from raw opium: a process so simple that Fazal can hardly believe it. (His experience reflects the discovery of Traffik’s writer and producer, who were initially given elaborate formulas and procedures by Western chemists and then, in Pakistan, shown how it’s done in the real world.)

    Too late, Fazal discovers that, for a businessman like Butt, there is no such thing as friendship or loyalty, only profits, losses and expendable assets. Fazal and his family are assets, nothing more, and Butt has uses for them. Those uses will exact a terrible cost.

    Traffik’s third locale is Hamburg, Germany, which is a major port. An undercover drug buy goes wrong, resulting in a gun battle that kills one of the suspects and leaves another one, Ledesert, wounded. (You immediately recognize him from that moment on, because he limps.) To make matters worse, the two undercover cops, Dieter and Ulli (Tilo Prückner and the very gruff Fritz Müller-Scherz) can’t find the heroin that they thought was in the suspects’ car. (There’s a very funny scene when the car is being dismantled, and one of the cops suddenly remembers that, in The French Connection, the dope was hidden in the rocker panels – at which point one of the mechanics hands him that exact part in pieces with a look that says: Yeah, we watch movies too!)

    By a lucky stroke, they do eventually find a huge cache of heroin, and Ledesert “flips” on a local businessman, Karl Rosshalde (George Kukura), who is arrested and hauled away as he returns from a business trip, right in front of his shocked wife and family. His wife, Helen (Lindsay Duncan), is the single most memorable character in Traffik. Viewers of the Soderbergh film may recall the Americanized version of Helen Rosshalde played by a pregnant Catherine Zeta-Jones (the character was called “Helena Ayala”). Some found Zeta-Jones unconvincing, but no one is likely to say that about Lindsay Duncan’s Helen, who, despite having remained willfully ignorant of the details of her husband’s drug-smuggling business throughout their marriage, proceeds to step into his shoes with a determination that only the truly desperate can muster.

    Not only is Helen broke, but she also owes huge sums to the kind of people who do not use courts to collect. Step by step, she proceeds to learn her husband’s business, while at the same time seeking to undermine the case against him by eliminating Ledersert – and Lindsay Duncan, a classically trained stage actress with delicate features that can go from gentle to stone-faced in a split second, creates an almost Shakespearean portrait of a woman determined to take control of her circumstances, no matter how dire. When Helen makes mistakes, it doesn’t faze her. If the police are too close, she’ll leap from a fire escape, fur coat and all, to elude them. If Tariq Butt needs to be convinced that she’s as tough as her husband, she’ll do what it takes to convince him, even if it involves a swindle and a body cavity search. If a hit on Ledesert kills someone else, she’ll try again. Helen is someone whose enemy you don’t want to be.

    At the conclusion of Traffik, some are dead, and others are alive. Some of those living may someday be brought to justice, or they may never be. But one thing remains certain, just as it was at the end of The Wire: Though the players may change, the game never even slows.


    Not a pretty picture. Traffik was made in an era of smaller TV screens, long before anyone had heard of DVD, and at a time when only a few hardcore maniacs used the term “home theater”. If one were to watch this remastered edition on a 27" 4:3 screen that would have been considered “large” at the time, it would look quite good. Viewed in the 4:3 center of a 72" screen, it looks like what it is: an old program from a standard definition broadcast signal. Black levels are weak, and detail is poor. Colors are fairly muted, but this turns out to be an advantage, because much of the film’s palette runs to reds and browns, especially in the Pakistan scenes, and this is the portion of the spectrum that fared worst in the video spectrum of that era (as any former laserdisc collector can attest). Overall, the image is what used to be called “grainy” but is more accurately described as soft and blurry.

    However, this may be the best that can be made of the source materials. Although I wasn’t able to locate technical specifications for Traffik, it was most likely shot on 16mm film, as is typical of even contemporary British television. If you consider all of the locations used in the series, it becomes evident that it had to be shot like a documentary, using available light. This makes for authenticity but not a glossy image.

    This edition is billed as “remastered”, and the effect of the remastering can be seen by comparing the two versions of episode 6 included on the second disc. (The differences between the versions are discussed under “Special Features”.) The remastered version has improved contrast and color fidelity, but it does not add significant picture detail. Either there isn’t much to add, or the remastering consisted of boosting the contrast, adjusting the color and doing some minor edge enhancement to create a sense of sharpness. Unfortunately, without access to original elements, there is no way to know.

    Although I generally prefer to review DVDs on a standard DVD player, in this instance I decided to experiment with upconversion and discovered that, for today’s larger screens, upconverting these Traffik DVDs through a Blu-ray player yields a more watchable image. If you’re at all interested in watching the series, I recommend doing it this way. Alternatively, if you have a choice of display devices, go for the smallest screen.


    Although the packaging doesn’t say so, the audio is mono presented as DD 2.0 at 192kbps. This is the most common method for presenting mono soundtracks on DVD, but I continue to believe that DD 1.0 at the same bitrate is preferable (and the people at Criterion appear to agree with me). In any case, because the sound is identical in the front left and right, playing the two tracks through any kind of ProLogic decoder will collapse the two channels toward the center, where they belong. The track has good fidelity, with clear dialogue and sound effects and the haunting musical selections, which are sparingly used. The dialogue in German and Arabic is subtitled, but there is also lot of heavily accented English from speakers whose native languages are German, French, Spanish and Arabic. Those whose ears are jarred by conflicting English accents may want to turn on English subtitles for all or part of the program.

    Special Features:

    Extended U.K. broadcast version of episode 6 (1:03:27). This is the episode as initially broadcast. It was subsequently reduced to 51 minutes to match the length of the other five episodes, and that is the version that has since been shown on PBS and released on video. As noted at the beginning of the extended version, it has not been remastered for this release. The additional 12½ minutes consist of additional scenes throughout the episode that expand and deepen individual sequences. Thus, for example, the edited episode opens with Minister Lithgow returning to London from a trip to Pakistan and insisting on going straight home to look for Caroline, whereas the original episode begins with his learning, just before he departs from Pakistan, that Caroline has checked herself out of a rehab facility and shows him worrying about her throughout the flight home. There are similar scene extensions throughout the episode, and, considering how much ground must be covered in this final episode, the inclusion of the full-length original is a terrific bonus.

    “The Making of Traffik”: Interview with writer Simon Moore and producer Brian Eastman (12:42). This 1990 interview was taped for the original broadcast of the series on PBS. Moore discusses his inspiration for the series, and Eastman talks about choosing a director and the series’ impact. One senses that both men had more to say, and it’s unfortunate that feature-length commentaries were not as routine at the time as they now are.

    From Traffik to Traffic. A short text essay on the process by which the series was adapted into a feature film.

    Photo gallery. A series of photos taken in various locations during production.

    Cast filmographies. Select filmographies for Bill Paterson, Lindsay Duncan and Julia Ormond. I would have like crew filmographies as well. American viewers might have enjoyed learning that, in a lighter moment, writer Simon Moore also wrote the Sam Raimi-directed, Sharon Stone western, The Quick and the Dead, recently released on Blu-ray by Sony Pictures.

    Previews. Disc 1 opens with a general trailer for Acorn Media features, followed by trailers for Life on Mars, Series 1 and The Hamburg Cell. These can be skipped via the menu button.

    In Conclusion:

    Even after twenty years, when its technique of overlapping storylines in multiple locales has become familiar from films like Syriana and series like The Wire, Traffik still packs a wallop. Its coldly objective, unsparing depiction of the world drug trade has seldom been equaled, and its disturbing performances ring true. And business continues.

    Equipment used for this review:

    Denon 955 DVD player/Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player

    Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display

    Lexicon MC-8

    Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier

    Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears

    Boston Acoustics VR-MC center

    SVS SB12-Plus sub

  2. Adam Gregorich


    Nov 20, 1999
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    Great review...Thanks. I really enjoyed the movie, I'll have to add this to my list.

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