His Work
Recent News
On TV...
About Me


An unofficial homepage dedicated to Elias Koteas


In a Terrorism Era
It's not just a drug bust anymore  


What a difference a terrorist attack makes.

"Traffic," the 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 Seattle.

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 and wrong.

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 "middleman.")

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), who do
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 Lee).

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 collaboration.

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.



bio | pix| his work| recent news | articles| on TV...| links | guests | about me


Copyright 2000 - 2007 Eloquent Elias