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Traffic: The Criterion Collection

USA Films Home Entertainment

Starring Michael Douglas, Benecio Del Toro, Don Cheadle,
Catherine Zeta-Jones, Luis Guzman, and Erika Christensen

Written by Stephen Gaghan
Derived from the BBC mini series Traffik
Written by Simon Moore

Directed by Steven Soderbergh


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Review by D.K. Holm                    


I. Mysteries Solved

Well, now we know what Stephen Soderbergh was doing during the summer of 2001. He was recording an audio commentary track to Traffic.

The original film came out in late 2000; won some Oscars in April of the following year; and enjoyed DVD release in April of 2001 (inspiring my first review of Traffic on the DVDJ). When the first disc from USA Home Entertainment failed to have much in the way of extras beyond a "making-of" featurette, the trailer and TV spots, there was a general feeling within the interested DVD community that perhaps Soderbergh was planning a special edition later on. The lack of at least an audio commentary track was later assumed to be because Soderbergh was off recording a commentary track with Mike Nichols for the excellent DVD of Catch-22. Meanwhile, Acorn released a two-disc set of the original British television miniseries Traffik. Then Criterion announced that it was releasing a two-disc version of Soderbergh's Traffic. Well, the set is finally here, and it is everything that fans of the film and connoisseurs of Criterion discs could want, and more.

This is good news all around. Criterion's release adds to our understanding of the film; it contributes yet another sterling addition (spine number 151) to the Criterion catalog; and gives the reviewer a chance to answer some questions posed by previous viewings.

Having now watched Traffic six times in the last three days, and having read the screenplay and various contemporaneous reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, including Staxx Flixburg's script review published online in March of 2000 (and now removed from the Internet: memo to web-slingers: always print out stuff you really like), and power-chaptered through the British miniseries, I can safely say that I have the most authoritative knowledge of Traffic within my circle of friends.

Thus elements that were once confusing to me now become clear. I now know for certain who killed Frankie Flowers and why in more detail (he is assassinated by a character named Tigrillo [Yul Vaquez] of the Obregón cartel in revenge for snitching on Obregón members to Madrigal cartel stooge General Salazar [the brilliantly wacko Tomas Milian]). That that portion of the film ever confused me now seems odd, given that so many viewings of the picture have placed it almost beyond criticism. At the time, a conversation between director Steven Soderbergh and writer Stephen Gaghan that served as a preface to the published screenplay seemed to indicate that they, too, were confused about that sequence, much as Howard Hawks and Raymond Chandler couldn't understand a crucial moment in The Big Sleep. Re-reading the interview, it seems that in fact they were simply dissatisfied with the Flowers death sequence because it represented for them something of a clumsy, perhaps overly dramatic way of disposing of a character.

Familiarity breeds affection. Yes, Traffic is mostly a collection of almost TV-level clichés derived from crime stories — the two cop buddies, one of whom dies; the bigwig whose own daughter, unbeknownst to him, is more or less a criminal; the naive search for the daughter. But Soderbergh's technique (hand-held camera, Godardian jump-cuts; raw acting) gives a level of verisimilitude to the subject that makes it transcend its (literally) TV-show material. Yes, Harrison Ford, originally cast in the Michael Douglas role, might have affected better the Republican stolidity of the character. But watching Douglas more and more, he seems very, very good in the part. Yes, the prominent-father / troubled-daughter story seems to back off of despair; but it nevertheless has its virtues, one of which is showing that, yes, kids are drawn to drugs because they can be fun.

Watching the film again with much more attention helps the viewer to isolate some exquisitely beautiful moments, moments of almost visceral physical pleasure. The way Miguel Ferrer's eyes dart back and forth between Guzman and Cheadle; the way James Brolin tells the Kruschev story; the look on Del Toro's face as he enters the gay bar, and the way he holds his gun behind his right hip when he is chasing crooks through the streets of Tijuana. The rhyming, counterpoint tears of Erika Christensen and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and the shot of Zeta-Jones driving away from the police station after her husband has been arrested. The way Zeta-Jones resembles Bardot; the eeriness of the Juarez cartel using the symbol "911" for its packaging. There are scores of such moments in Traffic, making it one of the few films from its year that one can watch again and again.


II. The DVD

The Criterion Collection has done a gratifyingly detailed job with its two-disc version of Traffic. Essentially, it is a thorough account of the making of the film.


Disc One

Disc One offers the movie and three audio commentary tracks, with an animated menu that divides the film into 69 chapters (one more than the USA disc, but here the final chapter is color bars). Many of the chapter titles have been changed.



Disc Two

The second disc is packed. It amounts to about three hours worth of material. Those of us who have complained recently about the superficiality and meaninglessness of most supplementary materials on DVD will be gratified to know that the Traffic material maintains the high standards of previous Criterion discs and the best of the major studio releases.

Traffic remains a four-star film, made even more valuable by the excellent job that Criterion as done with this special edition.

— D.K. Holm

Disc One

Disc Two



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