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In a Terrorism Era
It's not just a drug bust anymore
By ALESSANDRA STANLEY
What a difference a
terrorist attack makes.
three-part mini-series that starts tonight on the USA
Network, is the third drug-trade thriller by that name.
As gripping as Steven Soderbergh's 2000 movie or the
1989 British mini-series "Traffik," this version is a
look at the war on drugs through the prism of Sept. 11.
Heroin is the least of it; there are more
imminent threats to American society, including Al Qaeda
terrorists who use drug routes to smuggle weapons into
The mini-series is
not a remake in the same way there are multiple
renditions of "The Prisoner of Zenda" or "A Star Is
Born." But like remakes, each "Traffic" reflects the
mores of its period and culture, and ours is evidently
not a time for ambivalence or fatalism.
The USA "Traffic" follows the
template laid out by the British mini-series, which Mr.
Soderbergh borrowed for his movie — four interconnected,
cross-cutting story lines — to make an entirely
different point. Mr. Soderbergh's jittery, operatic
movie, centered on the United States and Mexico, was
very distinct in tone and
sensibility from the understated British mini-series set
in Pakistan, Germany and Britain, but both of those
works were infused with despair and cynicism.
This "Traffic" gives a bleak, mesmerizing portrait of an
insidious, intractable criminal underworld, but there is
not the same sense of futility. American law enforcement
may be fighting a losing battle against traffickers, but
a few tough men can make a difference.
The series has two such heros: Mike
McKay (Elias Koteas), a United States Drug Enforcement
Administration field agent who infiltrates opium
smuggling clans in Afghanistan, and Adam Kadyrov (Cliff
Curtis), a cabdriver and Chechen immigrant in Seattle
whose wife and child drown with dozens of other illegal
immigrants when a freighter sinks. Both men operate
outside the law, but neither seems confused about right
The story opens with Mike talking by cellphone to his
wife, Carole (Mary McCormack), back home in Seattle
about a routine day that included a shootout with Afghan
smugglers. (Different times, different Fazals: in the
British mini-series, Fazal was a Pakistani opium grower
who cannot earn a living any other way; when the Afghan
Fazal makes the same excuse to his American captor, Mike
scoffs and tells him he is not a farmer, he is a
Mr. Koteas plays Mike with the same
weary toughness that Robert De Niro's ex-C.I.A. agent
showed in the movie "Ronin," so when he suddenly shakes
loose from his partner, Brent (Martin Donovan), to go
AWOL with a group of Afghan drug smugglers, viewers are
safe in assuming there is more to his story. His
adventures galloping on horseback across Afghan plains,
AK47's and Claymore mines crammed in his saddlebags, are
cross cut with the more mundane dangers faced by his
wife and lonely 15-year-old son, Tyler (Justin Chatwin),
not understand why they are under surveillance by the
D.E.A. in Seattle.
Shadowy forces of corruption also surface along the
coastline of Seattle, where fishermen scoop up a dead
body in their net, then hurriedly throw it back. Other
corpses start to float to port, illegal immigrants
killed when the freighter that was smuggling them into
the United States sank.
When Adam realizes that his wife and child died in that
accident, he goes on an obsessive search for an
explanation of why it sank. His ferocious desire to know
such a dangerous secret contrasts sharply
with the willful blindness of Ben (Balthazar Getty),
a young M.B.A. who inherits his father's failing garment
import business and ends up working as a money launderer
for the local Chinese crime boss, Ronny Cho (Nelson
Seattle is not known for its teeming Chechen
neighborhoods, so it safe to assume that the
screenwriters wanted a Muslim hero to balance the
otherwise rather sinister array of Afghan murderers and
thieves. But a Chechen background makes sense to
explain Adam's tenacity; there is nothing like decades
of Soviet rule and invasion by Russian troops to sharpen
one's sense of vengeance and mistrust.
Middlemen are the most vividly drawn villains of the
series, starting with Ronny Cho, the slick,
flinty import-export boss, down to the Pakistani
storekeepers and corrupt ship captains who keep the
ports open to illegal trade. Previous versions looked
higher up the social ladder: Mr. Soderbergh's film
dwelled on the collaboration of the ruling classes: rich
private school kids using cocaine (including the drug
czar's own teenage daughter), a drug lord's trophy wife
determined to keep her husband's fortune intact, a
Mexican general who is on the take.
In this "Traffic" there is almost no sign of the high
and mighty. There is one glimpse of the rich: Adam's
sister-in-law works as a maid for a wealthy American
family. Seeking help, he goes to their stunning modern
glass house — all open spaces — and they shut him out,
not unmoved by his story, but too scared to get
involved. Theirs is a sin of omission, not
That, too, is a post-Sept. 11 sensibility. Safe times
embolden paranoia, the luxury of linking corruption and
conspiracy all the way to the top. At more dangerous
moments, there is less inclination to imagine the worst.
"Traffic," seeks merely to show how bad things can get.