Drugs are strictly business in Britain’s global ‘Traffik’

The 1989 drug-trade miniseries “Traffik” is known, if at all, as the basis for the Oscar-winning 2000 film “Traffic.” But this relatively little-seen British drama, which Acorn Media is reissuing in a remastered version this week, can stake a claim as an important forerunner of both the social-realist serial epic (as exemplified by “The Wire”) and the globalized we-are-the-world movie (a la “Babel” and “Syriana”).

When “Traffik” first aired on British television (and on PBS in the States the following year), drugs on screen tended to mean either the crime-fighting glamour of “Miami Vice” or cautionary addiction melodramas such as “The Boost” and “Drugstore Cowboy.” Bringing a cool head and an open mind to a politically and emotionally loaded subject, “Traffik” spans the globe and connects the dots, linking producers and users, poppy growers and anti-drug bureaucrats.

Instead of culminating with a big drug raid, the series -- written by Simon Moore and directed by Alastair Reid -- opens with one, a bust on the docks of Hamburg, Germany, and goes on to both enlarge and complicate the picture. In one of three interlocking threads, the British home minister (Bill Paterson) attempts to iron out the details of an aid program that compels Pakistani farmers to switch from poppy to sugar, a much less lucrative crop.

No sooner has he presented his findings to Parliament, insisting that the drug war be framed as “an overseas problem,” than he, along with the tabloid-reading public, discovers that his daughter (Julia Ormond) is a heroin addict.

Over in Hamburg -- the spelling of the title acknowledges the significance of the German port in the international heroin trade -- the authorities nab a German drug kingpin, leaving his icy British wife (Lindsay Duncan) to plot his freedom and keep the family business running.


And in Pakistan, with government forces destroying poppy fields, a farmer (Jamal Shah) decides to move up the economic ladder by offering his services to a Karachi drug lord, in bed with corrupt local officials and planning a massive shipment to Europe.

The American remake, which won Oscars for Benicio Del Toro, director Steven Soderbergh, screenwriter Stephen Gaghan and film editor Stephen Mirrione (it was also nominated for best picture), shifts the battlefront to the U.S.-Mexico border but preserves the shape and structure of “Traffik.” All the major figures have close equivalents, except the Pakistani farmer, who’s replaced by the Del Toro character, a Tijuana cop with a flexible moral compass. (There was also a third iteration, a 2004 miniseries on USA Network set largely in Seattle and Afghanistan.)

Critics familiar with the British original have often asserted its superiority over the American version, and it’s certainly true that “Traffik,” which runs more than twice as long, has fuller, more satisfying character arcs (and, especially in the cases of Duncan and Ormond, actors who make the most of them). Back in 1989, years before “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” this was television at its most ambitious, imbuing the serial drama with novelistic complexity and depth.

But Soderbergh’s film, despite some overly tidy shortcuts, does a few things better than the mini-series: It’s more visually dynamic and on balance has a stronger and showier ensemble cast. In retrospect it seems like a turning point in the career of this restless, endlessly adaptable filmmaker: the first movie on which he served as his own cinematographer (which he has done on all his films since, including “The Informant!,” currently in theaters, and “The Girlfriend Experience,” out on DVD this week).

Both “Traffik” and “Traffic” are exercises in parallel storytelling, descendants of the original color-coordinated cross-cut epic, D.W. Griffith’s 1916 “Intolerance.” In the years since “Traffic,” patchwork butterfly-effect narratives have proliferated, not least among Hollywood prestige movies: Paul Haggis’ “Crash,” Gaghan’s “Syriana,” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo Arriaga’s “21 Grams” and “Babel.”

If these movies have a common flaw, it’s that they are, to a large degree, diagrams, in which pawn-like characters are jerked around and thrown together to reveal some universal truth or other. But “Traffik” is not nearly so mystical -- here it’s not cosmic coincidences that make the world go ‘round so much as the brute market forces of supply and demand.

The point is hard to miss: Drugs are a global problem not least because they are an international business.