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Traffic (Criterion) Blu-ray Review (1 Viewer)

Matt Hough

Senior HTF Member
Apr 24, 2006
Charlotte, NC
Real Name
Matt Hough

Steven Soderbergh’s perceptive patchwork look at the state of the war on drugs at the end of the last century makes for absorbing viewing in Traffic. A terrific slate of actors combine their gifts in basically three interconnected stories about drug dealing going in both directions across the U.S.-Mexican border making its above average length palatable with scenarios that grip the attention early and hold on for dear life.

Traffic (Blu-ray)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Studio: Criterion
Year: 2000

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1   1080p   AVC codec
Running Time: 147 minutes
Rating: R
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, 2.0 English/Spanish
Subtitles: English

Region: A

MSRP: $39.95

Release Date: January 17, 2012

Review Date: January 4, 2012

The Film


The on-going war on drugs manages to touch a wide variety of people from the newly appointed National Drug Control Policy czar Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) whose own daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is slowly succumbing to the lure of controlled substances and willing to do anything to get them to Mexican border drug cops Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) who are recruited by the drug fighting figurehead General Arturo Salazar (Tomas Milian) to work for him in deflecting U.S. interventions into the Mexican drug trade as well as helping his group to triumph over the Tijuana Cartel. Meanwhile, San Diego drug kingpin Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer) is arrested after a long surveillance operation by detectives Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luiz Guzman). They also capture one of Ayala’s top operatives Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer) who is willing to testify against Ayala for immunity against prosecution.

Stephen Gaghan’s screenplay manages to tell all of these various stories by the expert  intercutting by director/cinematographer Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh uses various visual motifs to aid the audience in distinguishing which patches on the quilt he’s focusing on at any given moment though these colored and sometimes heavily grainy and contrasted motifs aren’t always consistently maintained. However, by the time they’re somewhat abandoned, we’re fully immersed in the various tales. The Michael Douglas/Erika Christensen story is perhaps the least surprising or innovative of the plots (and the one most filled with the expected clichés of the drug movie genre, but its banality is a strength. Many families can obviously identify with it), while both pairs of cops, one on the Mexican side and one on the American side, have stories that might have benefited from greater expansion. And the story of drug lord Carlos Ayala whose wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is initially ignorant of her husband’s drug business but who becomes a fast learner under pressure from the cartels makes another story which could have been enriched with more intricate plotting. While the film has a fair share of action scenes (some explicit torture scenes, the planting of a car bomb and an assassination of an assassin smack of Hitchcockian overtones), Soderbergh is secure enough to let scenes run on with often more talk than task making the film a much more erudite docudrama than action fans might expect.

Performances across the board are expert. Benicio Del Toro won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance (delivered mostly in Spanish) as the gritty border cop who knows the ins and outs of dealing with the cartels, and while he’s greatly effective, he’s no more dynamic than Don Cheadle or Michael Douglas or Miguel Ferrer in their respective roles. Dennis Quaid scores as a shifty lawyer, and Clifton Collins Jr. is memorable as a weasel-like assassin. As the high schooler who gets Caroline hooked on drugs, Topher Grace offers much sleazy charm. Erika Christensen’s Caroline is superb enacting a spoiled prep schooler who lets drugs become the focus of her life while Catherine Zeta-Jones (though her accent shifts throughout the movie) changes before our eyes as a kingpin’s wife left to her own devices. In smaller roles but nonetheless effective are Albert Finney, James Brolin, Salma Hayek, D.W. Moffett, and Peter Riegert.

Video Quality


The film is presented in the director’s favored framing of 1.78:1 and boasts 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. Capturing the look of the theatrical exhibition almost to perfection, the film’s various signature visual motifs come through with precision: from the blown out sepia look of the grainy Mexican-set scenes to the über-cool blues of Ohio and the more richly saturated and more natural views of California. Sharpness is excellent throughout even in the scenes with their blown out whites and heavy contrast. There appeared to be occasional slight banding in some of the sky vistas as well as perfectly acceptable but not always exemplary black levels throughout. The white subtitles are easy to read. The film has been divided into 68 chapters.

Audio Quality


The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track uses Cliff Martinez’s background score for the primary occupants of the rear channels. For the rest, the dialogue is well recorded and placed in the center channel as are many of the ambient sounds which are present in the soundtrack. None of the film’s nine basic locations seem to envelop the viewer with atmospheric location audio though what is here is certainly acceptable. A DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track is also an audio option.

Special Features


There are three audio commentaries all worthy of attention. In the first, director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan hold an enjoyable and informative conversation about many different aspects of making the film. It’s the best of the three commentaries available. The second one involves producers Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, and Laura Bickford as well as consultants Tim Golden and Craig Chretien, mostly recorded separately and edited together. Theirs is also an interesting collection of facts and opinions on the film (the consultants are honest in places where the film veers away from what would actually happen) and is also well worth a listen. The third is a combination commentary by film composer Cliff Martinez and isolated score track excerpts from the movie at various intervals. It’s nice to have a different kind of perspective used in discussing the movie, and Martinez is well spoken and having worked on quite a few Soderbergh films, has much to share.

All of the bonus video material is presented in 1080i.

There are twenty-five deleted scenes (plus one gag scene) which can be played separately or in one 27-minute collection. There is also optional commentary available with director Soderbergh and writer Gaghan.

A Demonstration Section offers detailed looks about achieving the film’s look in film processing (five steps which run a total of 5 ¾ minutes), film editing narrated by Oscar-winning editor Stephen Mirrione (four scenes which can be seen from multiple angles), and dialogue editing narrated by Larry Blake (four scenes running 13 ¼ minutes in total).

A section of additional footage presents the raw, unedited filmed rushes divided into four scenes: Epic (3 minutes), Drug Warehouse (7 ¼ minutes), Cocktail Party (30 ¾ minutes), and Kids on the Street (three takes which run a total of 2 ¾ minutes).

The trailer section contains the teaser trailer (1 minute), the theatrical trailer (2 ½ minutes), and five TV spots (each lasting ½ minute).

There are fifteen trading cards featuring images of drug dogs used in law enforcement procedures and the descriptions of the animals on the reverse side of the card.

The enclosed folded pamphlet contains the complete chapter listing, the cast and crew lists, and an essay on the movie by film critic Manohla Dargis.

The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentaries that go along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.

In Conclusion

4.5/5 (not an average)

Winner of four Academy Awards including those for direction and screenplay, Traffic is a sobering look at the relentless and often frustrating battle to control the drug trade between the United States and Mexico put in personal terms that keep it endlessly watchable. The Criterion release offers an accurate depiction of the film’s theatrical release (with a slightly altered aspect ratio) and a nicely varied array of bonus material. Highly recommended!

Matt Hough

Charlotte, NC


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