June 29, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Traffik

type
TV Show
Current Status
In Season
mpaa
Unrated
performer
Linda Bassett, Vincenzo Benestante, Lindsay Duncan, Julia Ormond
director
Alastair Reid
Producers
Channel Four Films, Picture Partnership
author
Simon Moore

The original is better.

It’s a curmudgeonly statement — cranky and almost cliche — but in the case of the 1989 British miniseries that spawned Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, it happens to be true.

Stretched over five and a half hours, Channel Four’s road map to the European heroin trade shares the same defining ensemble cast of characters as its Oscar-winning cousin — the rich wife of a drug dealer, the narcs protecting a star witness, the drug minister and his addicted daughter (Julia Ormond, in an unspectacular debut) — but provides far headier pleasures. Simon Moore’s script allows the latticework to emerge in leisurely fashion, leading to the revelation — never satisfactorily achieved in Stephen Gaghan’s screenplay for last year’s movie version — that the drug trade is a spectacularly complex spiderweb, snaring people across class lines and national borders. Simple actions — a drug czar arriving in Pakistan, for example — send repercussions pinging wildly. Desperate for aid, the Pakistani government stages a bust. The bust throws a courier in prison. The courier’s family is forced to smuggle heroin to pay for his release. That heroin helps pay for a Mob hit. And on and on.

The character arcs of the miniseries are also more satisfying: Those still baffled by Catherine Zeta-Jones’ dark conversion will find Lindsay Duncan’s transformation more coherent and chilling (not to mention better acted). Watching Traffik reveals the American version to be an exercise in slightly klutzy telescoping — powerful, but a bit like compressing a full season of The Sopranos into a made-for-the-multiplexes running time.

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