`Traffic' rolls again

TV Preview

January 26, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Three heavily armed men are faced off against each other in a bombed-out shell of a stone hut somewhere in Afghanistan. One is an American who is talking fast, trying to strike a deal with the others.

It looks and sounds like a drug deal, when suddenly something goes wrong. Bullets fly, bodies fall. The sequence ends when an Afghani intentionally steps on a land mine rather than surrender. The American walks away covered in blood.

This is the start of Traffic: The Miniseries, a six-hour film about international drug-trafficking, terrorism and America-as-world-policeman airing tonight through Wednesday on the USA cable channel. If the title sounds familiar, there is a good reason: This is the third version of what started in 1989 as a miniseries on Britain's BBC under the title Traffik.

The Brit version - a dazzling pastiche of overlapping story lines showing the connections between the drug worlds of Asia and the politics and drug culture in Britain - aired on PBS in 1990. It starred Bill Patterson, Lindsay Duncan and Julia Ormand. Ten years later, a Hollywood version starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas hit the big screen.

One might think there would be nothing left in the Traffic tank, especially given the lack of any actor to compare with Duncan or Douglas in this made-for-cable version. But, while Traffic: The Miniseries is definitely not in a league with its predecessors, there are still a number of things to like.

What's being imitated in this version is not so much the story as the way it was told in the BBC series. Three different genres and narratives are deftly linked by savvy cross-cut editing to make a powerful statement about globalization and the way the Third World and our world are now intertwined.

The person most responsible for that is director-producer Stephen Hopkins, best known for his work on 24, the clock-is-ticking drama from Fox. In terms of style and storytelling, Traffic looks like a cross between 24 and HBO's The Wire - not bad for basic cable.

The three stories - a western, a family drama and a crime saga - share the character of Mike McKay (Elias Koteas), an agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency stationed in Afghanistan. He's the American in the opening segment.

In Afghanistan, he rounds up a posse and goes off on horseback looking for a stash of heroin seized from former Taliban leaders. That's what McKay appears to be looking for anyway.

But there are also two containers of smallpox virus headed for the United States aboard a ship, and one of the drug traffickers with whom McKay is riding might know the number of the container in which the virus is stored. Only it's not clear what McKay wants most: to stop the virus or to run off with the heroin. Almost everyone at the DEA thinks it's the latter.

Meanwhile, there's a family drama back in Seattle with McKay's wife, Carole (Mary McCormack), and his teen-age son, Tyler (Justin Chatwin). Mom is lonely, and Tyler's bored in their new suburban home - until he meets the girl next door, who introduces him to sex, lies and the heart of Seattle's drug culture.

The third leg of the miniseries is set on Seattle's waterfront, a prime entry point into the United States for smugglers not only of drugs but also humans. A ship loaded with illegal immigrants from the former Soviet Union sinks, and no one cares - until bodies with bullet holes in them start washing ashore.

Of the three story lines, the family drama is by far the worst - consistently dragging the suspense down to the whiny, teen-angst level of Beverly Hills, 90210. What we have here is another case of good drama going bad in television's slavish pursuit of young demographics.

Bad enough to drive viewers away? Probably not, but bad enough to keep the miniseries as a whole from taking flight.

Traffic opens with a cosmic statement. "For most of recorded history, the wealth of the world came from Asia, reaching the west by sea and routes that took it across remote deserts and desolate mountain passes," a character says in voiceover.

"At first, the routes carried furs, silks and spices. ... They now carry cargoes both benign and ominous from the heart of Asia to cities and towns of the Western world."

In the end, the miniseries never achieves the kind of epic storytelling suggested by that overture. But, at least, USA cable tried to give us something grand - even if it was hand-me-down grand from Britain via Hollywood.

Traffic: The Miniseries

When: At 9 tonight, tomorrow and Wednesday

Where: USA cable

In brief: There's still some life left in this saga of drug smuggling.

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