Daniel Fierman
June 29, 2001 AT 04:00 AM EDT

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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