Traffic On DVD

Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro, Don Cheadle, Luiz Guzmán, Dennis Quaid, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Erika Christensen, Amy Irving, Albert Finney, Steven Bauer. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1. 147 minutes. 2001. USA Home Entertainment 98306 0181-2. R. $26.98.

Released only nine months after his immensely popular Erin Brockovich, director Steven Soderbergh's Traffic is a different kettle of fish entirely. It follows three storylines and an enormous cast of characters as they go about lives linked only by the impact on them of illicit drugs. It's sprawling, ambitious, and devastatingly gripping.

Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) is a rural Mexican cop fighting drugs in an environment where "law enforcement is an entrepreneurial activity." Judge Bob Hudson Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is the latest US drug czar. And in San Diego, DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luiz Guzmán) work hard to bust drug kingpin Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), whose ordinary "housewife" Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) turns into a tigress when her life of luxury seems in danger of disappearing.

Not content with juggling all of these storylines, Soderbergh went further, crafting a different visual look for each of them. Mexico is grittily sepia-toned, San Diego is full of soft sunlight and cool colors, Washington, DC seems dull and lacking deep focus (nudge nudge, wink wink). This initially distracts from the sense of reality that otherwise pervades Traffic, but the viewer quickly adjusts.

That sense of reality is very strongly supported by other aspects of the film. Ambitious in scope, it is modest in its refusal to wrap up its complex subject with a tidy ending—nothing is resolved. But the verve with which the film asks the big questions is energizing; despite its graphic, unblinking look at an ugly reality, Traffic is a testament to the life-enhancing properties of great cinema.

USA has given us a DVD worthy of the film. The transfer is first-rate. The cinematography may frequently be deliberately artificial, but the DVD delivers it intact. The sound is also well done. While short on boom, Traffic uses subtle spatial cues and intelligently applied surround information to great effect. DVD bonuses include theatrical trailers and TV spots, as well as Making of and Inside Traffic featurettes.

In an era widely derided for its lack of cinematic ambition, Steven Soderbergh has produced a film that is worthy of comparison to the finest American films. Don't miss it.