Sprawling, ambitious and, in the early stages, staggeringly convoluted, “Traffic” has completed the cycle from British miniseries to Oscar-nominated American film and back to cable multiparter, with the latest incarnation bearing only a scant resemblance to its predecessors. Expanding beyond drugs to contraband in various forms — including weapons and refugees — this handsome production takes too long to get going, but eventually generates considerable suspense, even if its parallel plots brush up against each other in only the most glancing fashion.
Although it’s easy to understand why Universal sought to cash in on the name, it really doesn’t do this interesting project (billed as “inspired by” the movie) any favors. That’s because where the Steven Soderbergh film dealt compellingly with just how depressingly intractable the drug problem is, USA’s miniseries lacks that level of complexity, instead focusing broadly on illicit trafficking and its repercussions on various lives.
In that sense — the plot-hopping narrative structure notwithstanding — it’s a more conventional story that dovetails rather nicely with those government-sponsored ads about how drug users are supporting terrorists, a somewhat ironic stance given the film’s less charitable posture toward law-enforcement efforts.
“Traffic: The Miniseries” also suffers, through no fault of its own, from thematic similarities to the second season of HBO’s “The Wire,” which also explored the illegal movement of goods through U.S. ports. Moreover, that brilliant crime drama hinged on the horrific death of immigrants being smuggled into the country, also a key plot point here.
Boiling down the storyline is no small feat, as the globetrotting action (with Vancouver again demonstrating its astonishing elasticity as a location) leaps back and forth from Seattle to Afghanistan. It doesn’t help, either, that the editing moves so quickly that initially it’s difficult to zero in on the main characters, whose stories gradually coalesce into an intricate web that ultimately unravels a bit in the final installment.
At the center is Mike McKay (Elias Koteas), a DEA agent in Afghanistan, who makes a deal for an enormous stash of heroin with a drug trafficker (Ritchie Coster) and heads into the mountains.
Back home, McKay’s wife, Carole (Mary McCormack), faces growing suspicions within the agency that her husband has turned rogue, while struggling to control their teenage son Tyler (Justin Chatwin), who becomes involved with a free-spirited neighbor girl who is a drug abuser.
A separate arc involves Ben (Balthazar Getty), a failed entrepreneur who takes over a company from his father (Tony Musante, in a cameo) and finds himself in business with local crime lord Ronny Cho (Nelson Lee). At first reluctant, Ben begins to savor the fast-lane life into which he has merged. “I’m tired of flying coach,” he says at one point.
The remaining (and perhaps most far-fetched) strand centers on Adam (Cliff Curtis), a Chechnyan cab driver also living in Seattle, whose wife and child die mysteriously while being brought into the country via a ring with which Ronny is associated. Obsessed with their deaths, Adam begins investigating what transpired aboard the ship, seemingly determined to avenge them.
Actually, that’s just part of the story, which, as crafted by writer Ron Hutchinson and directors Stephen Hopkins and Eric Bross, presents an especially gritty portrait of life among the undocumented, similar in ways to the quietly powerful film “Dirty Pretty Things.”
Without giving too much away, however, the payoff isn’t particularly satisfying, and a few of the third-part twists are unfortunately predictable, undercutting some of what has gone before.
Buoyed by strong performances from its mostly low-profile cast, “Traffic” is nevertheless a laudable effort whose three-night format and brooding content present a serious marketing challenge — as underscored by the less-than-stellar ratings for HBO’s critically salivated-upon “Angels in America.”
Then again, USA hasn’t always traveled the high road of late in the longform arena, greenlighting dripping-wet movies about the D.C. sniper and Laci Peterson cases. From that perspective alone, “Traffic” marks a noteworthy roadside stop along TV’s crowded superhighway, whatever sort of Nielsen traffic it generates.