After hitting a nadir with 1996's 'Schizopolis,' a stream-of-consciousness comedy so odd it was like he'd found someone to bankroll career suicide, director Steven Soderbergh resuscitated himself with a furious creative streak that quickly reestablished him as an industry darling. His intelligence and originality gave a fresh, artistic voice to mainstream entertainments like 'Out of Sight' (1998) and 'Erin Brockovich' (2000). He was even able to pull a large audience to lower-budget side projects like his excellent 1999 drama 'The Limey.'
But his crowning achievement and the film that made him an A-list director was 'Traffic,' for which he won the 2000 Oscar for Best Director. In 'Traffic,' Soderbergh mixes colors, so each storyline has its own hue, and juggles interlocking stories and over a hundred speaking parts. But 'Traffic' isn't about what Soderbergh does, it's about what Soderbergh does not do. He and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan don't lecture the audience on the evils of drugs or how to solve the drug problem. While their ultimate conclusion is that America's war on drugs is an expensive, ongoing failure that benefits those it should be punishing, it's simply where the story finally takes them.
'Traffic' is a movie filled with despair, yet it still leaves room for a glimmer of hope. As the film opens, Tijuana-based policemen Javier and Manolo (Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro and Jacob Vargas) intercept a truckload of heroin, but their haul is confiscated by General Salazar (an excellent Tomas Milian), whose interest in the heroin goes a little further than keeping it off the streets. On the American side of the border, Bob Wakefield (Michael Douglas) has just been appointed the president's drug czar, and he quickly emerges as a man eager to do good but naively unaware of his own naivete: under his own roof, daughter Caroline (erika Christensen) is freebasing cocaine. In San diego, Drug Enforcement Agency agents Castro (the always wonderful Luiz Guzman) and Gordon (the equally wonderful Don Cheadle) nail a mid-level trafficker (Miguel Ferrer) who agrees to testify against drug kingpin Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), whose wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is about to find out what her husband's real profession is. And the decision she makes with the knowledge will result in one of the film's best scenes.
As the film unfolds, the viewer begins to understand the complexity of the issue. For instance, Wakefield, the new drug czar, asks who his Mexican equivalent is. He's told there is none. And although he's the country's top antidrug mouthpiece, he is forced to acknowledge his wife's college-era experimentation, as well as his own borderline alcoholism.
Soderbergh takes all of these story threads and intercuts them, layers them, and crisscrosses them, until we see that the drug problem is everybody's problem, from the rich, white high school kid who trolls downtown looking for a fix to an American government either too ignorant to realize the war on drugs isn't working, or too scared to admit it's not working. But ultimately, what this accomplished film proves is that drug lords like Carlos Ayala don't traffic in drugs. They traffic in human nature.
All I can say is that I would not have wanted to be one of the techies that had to transfer 'Traffic' to high-def, because I just wouldn't have known where to begin in assessing just how this film is supposed to look. Soderbergh intentionally went ballistic with his visual style on 'Traffic,' "coloring" each of the film's interlocking stories, as well as utilizing different grades of film stock and mix 'n' match lighting techniques. It certainly works like gangbusters for the narrative, but the resultant video quality is a hodgepodge to say the least.
Bottom line, this HD DVD transfer delivers. The source material is as good as the film stock allow, with no major defects visible such as print tears or distracting blemishes, though grain is intentionally excessive for much of the film. Black levels are consistent throughout, while contrast is all over the map. Some story threads have whites so blown out that fine detail is all but obscured, while others are bathed in darkness or excessively saturated colors. Thus, there is some noise and smeared hues, but again it appears intentional. Overall detail and depth to the image is about as good as can be expected. No, I was never blown away by the presentation as I've been with other HD DVD releases, but then I never anticipated otherwise.
Universal gifts 'Traffic' with a Dolby Digital-Plus track encoded at 1.5Mbps, but even with such a generous bitrate, it can only do its best with a film that, sonically at least, is far from showy. 'Traffic' is primarily dialogue-driven and uneventful, so any sense of envelopment is sporadic.
Technically, this Dolby Digital-Plus track sounds perfectly fine. Frequency response is more than adequate for the material, with the full-bodied mid- and high-range more than capable of reproducing the finely-tuned dialogue, which is sometimes uttered in hushed tones, or obscured by effects. Low bass is unobtrusive but at least delivers some heft during the film's few bursts of aggression. Surround use, again, is relatively scarce. Occasional split surround effects can be heard, for example during the siege on the home of drug lord Carlos Ayala, but otherwise the rears are largely reserved for subtle atmosphere.
Unfortunately, Universal's licensing deal with Criterion prevent the studio from using any of the terrific extras found on the latter's deluxe DVD edition for this high-def release. However, the studio has ported over all of the extras from their standard-def version of 'Traffic,' though in this case that isn't really a good thing.
Honestly, the only notable extra is the 12-minute featurette "Inside 'Traffic,'" but it is pretty crap. Formulaic and pedestrian, it's about as incisive and insightful as a segment of ''Access Hollywood." Feel free to skip it.
The only other supplements are a fairly pithy photo gallery with a collection of on-set and publicity stills, and rare for a Universal HD DVD release, an assortment of three theatrical trailers and five TV spots. Obviously, the studio only included them this time to make sure this package didn't look too slim.
'Traffic' is such a fine film that it is worth recommending despite the average nature of this HD DVD release. Admittedly, the film's visual style and subdued sound design doesn't make for an overwhelming high-def experience, and the extras here are meager to put it nicely. But 'Traffic' remains a film that demand to be seen, and you could do far worse than to add it to your growing HD DVD collection.