Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Hearing that the 1999 movie Traffic was good, Savant avoided
reading anything about it before checking it out. As the show wound up, with Benecio del Toro watching a baseball
game in Tijuana, a title came up saying it was based on a UK Channel 4 TV show called Traffik.
I immediately wondered what that would be like.
The original Traffik is over four hours long, broken into six 40 minute episodes. Acorn
Media has released an American NTSC 2 disc boxed set of the miniseries, that plays like the proverbial
page-turner. Expecting to watch one episode a day, I ended up glued to the set and saw the whole
thing in two sittings.
Hamburg detectives capture middleman drug trafficker Ledesert (Peter
Lakenmacher) and force him to name names, which brings about the arrest of businessman Kurt (Knut
Hinz), a seemingly benign millionaire who does great public works in Pakistan. His trophy wife Helen
(Lindsay Duncan) is forced to take over her husband's racket, fending off the advances of
their lawyer Domenguez (Vincenzo Benestante) and outsmarting the cops on her own.
In Pakistan, venal drug czar Tariq Butt (Talat Hussain) takes on a new assistant, Fazal (Jamal Shah), a farmer driven
from growing poppy crops by government troops. Fazal is soon learning the drug trade, but at a high
price, because Butt wants him to commit ever-greater crimes, while holding his family as virtual
Minister Jack Lithgow (Bill Paterson) is in Pakistan getting completely snowed by corrupt local
officials, who want the financial aid package he's come to investigate. At a reception, the activist
sister of his consulate contact, Roomana (Feryal Gauhar Shah) tells him that the government anti-heroin
activities are a sham, and points out Tariq Butt as a
guest at the reception. Jack has problems back in London, too: his daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond)
is becoming an uncontrollable heroin addict herself.
The fastest four hours Savant can remember seeing in a long time, the miniseries Traffik shares
two major plots with its Steve Soderbergh remake. The cops pry open the Hamburg network identically
(with interesting variations - their quarry shoots himself in the foot in this original) and the
'abandoned' wife of the imprisoned kingpin similarly works through her hardship to triumph as a ruthless criminal
in her own right.
The acting is excellent. The two bedraggled cops are as earthy and
loveable as their American counterparts. In place of the snappy dialogue, Traffik offers more detail
and a more remote (to us) setting. It is also a bit more credible in some instances. The supposedly innocent
wife of the drug kingpin in Soderbergh's film transformed herself into a vicious Little Caesar rather
clumsily, probably as a result of cuts that ellipsed her character arc. With the Mexican
criminals so monstrous, we just haven't been prepared to believe Catherine Zeta-Jones when she goes
to Tijuana and
has a happy sit-down chat with them. In Traffik, because Lindsay Duncan is less of an intimidating
beauty and already is aware that her husband is some kind of crook, she's simply more understandable.
The obvious intent of both the series and the movie was to educate on the enormous drug problem, especially to
show that everyone involved is a victim, consumers and suppliers. The 'down home' segment of each show involves a high-level
government official fighting the War on Drugs, who discovers his own daughter to be a junkie. Equally
honest as the Michael Douglas character, Bill Paterson's Minister is ignorant in a British way instead
of an American one. Both begin convinced that a simple application of morals and fairness should have
an impact on the drug problem, and both are disabused of that notion in their personal and public lives.
This is where
the two shows begin to diverge. Traffic is a horror tale for parents, as Douglas'es daughter steals
and prostitutes herself for drugs. Douglas takes his lumps from a black pusher
and alienates his wife with his, 'I'm in charge' bullying, but he never loses his mantle of command. The
finale, with him announcing he's willing to listen, is a welcome development, but the steps leading to it
have to be taken on faith.
The big news in Traffic was showing kids from the fanciest American prep schools blowing their minds on
heroin. In Traffik, we see Julia Ormond's insane spiral of deceptions and apologies and betrayals in
better relief; she seems a worthier person to begin with. Bill Paterson's attempts to 'cure' her addiction
get a much less idealized treatment. He loses more and is brought lower. His already dysfunctional relationship
with his wife evaporates, and his dismissal from his Ministry post is credibly depressing, in contrast to
Michael Douglas' grandstanding abandonment of his federal job. Paterson arrives at Traffik's more
satisfying emotional conclusion when he accepts his daughter as an entity separate from the actions brought on by her disease.
Tellingly, the UK drug czar is cashiered for not playing along with the hypocrisy. His bureaucracy, is seen
as well-meaning but hopelessly blind. The American
system is (unfairly) branded as a meaningless sham from the top down and the inside out, and not
worthy of Douglas' sincere efforts. 1
The only weak link in Traffik's politics is the speech that Paterson delivers
at the end (he appears to be heading up an anti-drug movement) that says the right things but
blunts the message with generalities like 'we have to create a society people want to live in.'
With its change in locale, the third of the movie that is totally unlike Soderbergh's Traffic
is naturally the most interesting. The foreign source country for Europe's heroin is Pakistan, and
we get the full picture of the cruelty, corruption and misery of the situation by watching the Fazal
character's odyssey from beleagured farmer to helpless minion of a verminous Pakistani druglord. This
literally power-mad tyrant enslaves his employees, outsmarts the authorities, and poses as a model citizen.
There is law enforcement in Mexico, and it is a totally different situation there, so using the
Benecio del Toro character in Traffic was appropriate. Besides, Americans would be too uninterested
(guilty?) to sit still for a story about a peasant Mexican farmer who has hard time with slick
drug criminals - that's just too obvious. But since we Americans know virtually zilch about Pakistan,
everything we see in Traffik is fascinating, from the odd shape of the poppy plants themselves to the tight circle of
corruption that enables the drug industry to flourish. Police are irrelevant when
the only police actions are charades to impress visiting ministers. Our farmer hero Fazal, on the
other hand, is a reasonable man who comes to the reasonable conclusion that in an insane world,
one must get along with the insanity to survive. His attempt to make terms with his druglord employer
goes out of control very quickly, and the expected tragedy comes in an unexpected form.
Traffik is a bit more straightforward than Traffic, and comes off with fewer problems.
If there's ever a special edition of Soderbergh's film that fills in the character gaps, it all
might come together, but as it stands neither the Zeta-Jones nor Del Toro characters are totally
satisfactory. Del Toro's Tijuana policeman is able to cajole his warlord general, snitch to the
Americans, and somehow get his baseball stadium built while never being uncovered. You'd think that the
Mexican Mafia would find out about his duplicity far sooner than later ... and how come the funds for the
baseball park weren't diverted into corrupt private hands, like the rest of the 'aid' to Mexico?
The original Traffik is more realistic and more heartbreaking. When a British coroner laments, 'What
these people will do to make money' over the corpse of a Pakistani victim (whose last motivation on
Earth would be to make money), this is where Traffik scores its points. Bill Paterson tries
a puff of opium, and is lectured by the Pakistani activist that alcohol kills far more many people
than heroin in the West, and that it's forbidden in her country, and the irony is truly educational.
The best lessons of both films are simply felt, and not taught. We don't remember Paterson's talk about
'making a better society', but we definitely do realize that the drugs in his family life have something
major to do with his estrangement from his wife and daughter.
Acorn Media's DVD set of Traffik is an efficient but plainwrap package, with no real extras. Three
episodes are on each disc, which do not have closed captions (we Americans have trouble with UK
dialog at times). About half of the German and Pakistani dialogue is dubbed, and half subtitled,
without any pattern that Savant could discern. The camerawork, probably 16mm, is good and
the image is clean but still has the slightly (very slightly) soft look of PAL to NTSC conversion. If you
have seen the Prime Suspect UK teleseries converted discs, be assured that this always looks better
than that release.
The important thing to know is that the show is different, riveting, and not at all spoiled by first
having seen the American remake feature.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Packaging: Double keep case
Reviewed: August 11, 2001
1. (rant) This is an interesting trend, not only making government bad but
so bad that it can do no good whatsoever. It's as if Michael Douglas had thrown his badge into the dirt
Gary Cooper-style, and simply walked away. conservatives love this kind of defeatist imagery, as it
discourages idealists and other honest types, allowing businessmen to subvert our government without
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2001 Glenn Erickson
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