[box cover]

Traffic

USA Home Entertainment

Starring Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro,
Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Miguel Ferrer

Written by Stephen Gaghan
Directed by Steven Soderbergh


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Review by D. K. Holm                    


Who killed Frankie Flowers?

Otherwise known as Francisco Flores (Clifton Collins), he is the gay Mexican hitman who is also the scion of a wealthy Mexican family in Traffic. He is contracted by Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), pregnant and panicked, to assassinate a witness in her husband's drug trial. Frankie has agreed to blow up the car used by the federal forces driving witness Eduardo Ruiz (a brilliant Miguel Ferrer) around. But the hit goes awry. In one of the most delightful moments in recent cinema, Helena screams into her encrypted cellular telephone at Frankie, "Just get out of the car and shoot him in the head! Just shoot him!" But before Flores can enact this charge, he is himself gunned down by a rifleman secreted in a building across the street. Frankie never did like guns. He always preferred bombs.

So the question remains, Who killed Frankie Flowers? We see the killer. He is a tall muscular guy with a very thin goatee. But who is he working for? Was it the Tijuana based Obregon cartel (led by Benjamin Bratt)? Or was it encroaching Madrigal family? Perhaps it was a rogue government agent. The movie goes by so fast at this point, and you're not quite sure what's happening here, or not likely to realize that you don't follow what's happening.

Fortunately, we now have DVD technology to help us solve such problems. A careful scrutiny entailing comparisons of scenes and the utilization of scene selection and frame freezing reveals that the hitman is an associate of the Obregon clan. He is seen three times in the film. He threatens Helena Ayala for some moneys owed by her husband to the Obregons. He shoots Frankie. And he is in the background of a marvelous scene in which Helena sets the terms of a new contract between her husband and the Obregons. This character shoots Flowers because he ratted out some operatives in the Obregon family.

*          *          *

If this aspect of the film seems somewhat muddy, the rest of Traffic is sparklingly clear. Traffic is top notch American filmmaking with an art house flavor from a director coming into his own, and supported by excellent actors embodying a multi-narrative screenplay that must have been very difficult to organize.

Traffic's predecessor is Traffik, the six hour BBC/Channel Four miniseries produced in 1989, and broadcast on PBS in the early '90s. The movie bears many similarities to the series, but also significant changes. Both interweave three to four stories that capture the internecine nature of international drug smuggling and drug use. One thread in Traffic concerns Helena and her husband Carlos (Steven Bauer, a shadowy presence in the film) and the changes she goes through as she learns more about his real business. There is the tale of the two cops (Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman), pursuing Ayala primarily through their unwilling star witness, Ruiz (Ferrer). This story shows how drugs get to America. The next strand shows the effect of that drug trade on middle America as it follows the descent of Caroline (Erika Christensen) into addiction as her father Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) stands by mostly helpless. The paradox for him is that he has just been made the nation's Drug Czar. The final thread follows the efforts of Mexico's seemingly only honest cop, Javier (Benicio Del Toro). He can essentially hand over General Salazar (Thomas Millian) to federal drug agents. All he wants in return is a special favor.

This last thread does not appear in the miniseries (instead there is a subplot concerning a family in Pakistan) — it was added by screenwriter Stephen Gaghan. It is a moving account of loyalty and redemption, one lone man taking on a whole cartel. Soderbergh ends the film with this story, and it is a quiet, deeply affecting point at which to conclude the picture, and a delicate tone to end it in. But what does the film actually say about the drug trade? Though the Traffic bears the kind of realism found in BBC shows such as Prime Suspect, the ideas behind it seem mundane. Stripped of their realistic trappings, the Obregons and Salazar are like B-movie villains. Wisely, the film doesn't attempt to "solve" the drug crisis, but neither does it ask provocative questions (such as if should drugs be legalized and thus eradicate the Obregons of the world, or if government really has a right to legislate private behavior). Gaghan's previously credited screenplay, for William Friedkin's surprisingly jingoistic Rules of Engagement, suggests that despite his own journey through the drug underground, he essentially takes the government's view on the topic. The concept of legalization was briefly addressed in the screenplay (published by Newmarket Press), but that scene was one of many not found in the final film. On the other hand, Traffic is cleverly structured — a reference by Javier to a bad dream pays off later in a conversation with Salazar while also symbolizing his view of his country; and Douglas's drinking is easily contrasted with his daughter's habits.

Do the ideas in Traffic rest with Gaghan, or Soderbergh? The director has seemed unusually noncommittal or uninterested in the implications of his film. Despite his crowing success as an Oscar winner, the wide variety of his subject matter suggests that Soderbergh is more of a tech-head than a man pursuing issues about the quality of life. It might be a little to early in his career to judge Soderbergh too harshly, and his films do tend to be very well-crafted, with an ongoing concern with the intricacies and harsh realities of relationships, but it may be that Soderbergh is more comfortable as what the French call a metteur en scene — a somewhat impersonal director on the order George Cukor or Vincente Minelli, adept at drawing great performances out of performers (especially actresses) and creating the set around them, but without anything particularly unique to say. And there's nothing wrong with that, mind you. On the other hand the Traffic is produced by Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (Glory). Soderbergh should be instead be lauded for preventing the film from reaching excesses of emotional obviousness, swelling music, and actorial hagiography.

*          *          *

With four Oscars (adapted screenplay, direction, supporting actor and best editing), Traffic is just as well a four-star movie, and one wishes the DVD were a five-star event. USA Home Entertainment has offered up a very good transfer, but minimal extras. Now normally, making a fuss about extras is bush league stuff for DVD aficionados — but Traffic poses questions the viewer would like to have answered. For example, "Inside Traffic" (the "making-of" supplement on this disc) or an audio commentary track could have addressed the issue of why Soderbergh, who was his own director of photography, chose dominant colors for each of his stories (the Michael Douglas story is blue, the Del Toro story is yellow). Why did he think this would help the story rather than be distracting? Also, the published screenplay contains many, many "omitted" notations for scenes removed from the text. Will we ever find out what was in those scenes? And this would also be the place to hear what the filmmakers think of the drug world they have committed to film. Are their ideas about drugs as mainstream and Hollywoody as they for the most part seem?

Instead, the viewer gets a "making-of" documentary that is 60 percent clips from the film with only a few snippets of comments from the cast and crew. A suspicious DVD collector might theorize that a Special Edition might be in the works sometime down the line. Other than that, Traffic comes in a superb anamorphic (1.85:1) transfer that's virtually flawless, with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround (with various language options). Other features consist of a teaser trailer, the theatrical trailer, a German language trailer (the same as the U.S. trailer), and TV spots. There's also a photo gallery that the viewer doesn't click through, but instead must select images from a menu.

(It should be noted that there is a minor difference between the disc and the film as released. For the home-video version, the name of an actual private school in Cincinnati that Erika Christensen's character attends was removed after complaints from representatives of the institution. The reference appeared in one line of dialogue, and the difference is negligible.)

— D. K. Holm



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