While free of the sleazy intentions that could easily plague a film of this ilk, “Trade,” a sex-slavery story, is a clunky, badly focused botch. Girls are beaten, drugged, raped and sold to the highest pedophiliac bidder in this wannabe global-issue sizzler. But between the crime-thriller escapades and the buddy banter dominating things, you can’t feel the heartbreak or the tragedy.
By some estimates, nearly 1 million people are trafficked worldwide every year, and “Trade,” inspired by a New York Times Magazine article, both tells an intimate story set within this universe and addresses sex trafficking as a sprawling global crisis. It strives but sinks on both fronts.
The saga begins in a poor section of Mexico City, where a Russian gang abducts 13-year-old Adriana (Paulina Gaitan) while she’s riding the bike that her older brother, a petty thief named Jorge (Cesar Ramos), gave her for her birthday. A nightmare follows. Captors abuse and beat Adriana and their other prisoners, including a young Polish mother, Veronica (Alicja Bachleda). Adriana winds up in New Jersey, in the hands of a sex-slavery operation that plans to auction her off on the Internet as virgin goods.
Adriana’s journey alternates with that of Jorge, whose dogged search for his sister takes him over the border and into a mismatched-buddy scenario with Ray (Kevin Kline), a Texas lawman. Ray, for personal reasons, feels drawn to Adriana’s case. He and Jorge join forces to rescue the girl.
No doubt, the sex-trafficking labyrinth abounds with compelling stories, and perhaps a “Traffic”—like treatment or a gritty Michael Winterbottom-style docudrama might have presented the issue with dimension or impact.
But director Marco Kreuzpaintner (“Summer Storm”) and screenwriter Jose Rivera (who saw better road-trip days with “The Motorcycle Diaries”) have instead made a dramatically false bungle that delivers standard suspense-thriller action, bicker-and-bond buddy dynamics and domestic melodrama at the expense of any penetrating exploration of the causes and clockwork of the trafficking trade, or of who its victims and perpetrators are. Consequently, the film’s seemingly genuine attempt to portray the tragedy of sex trafficking without being lurid gives rise to what resembles exploitive sleaze.
As for the cast, the usually reliable Kline doesn’t convey Ray’s deep-down woundedness, and relative newcomer Ramos can’t meet the challenges of his emotionally demanding role. Faring best is Bachleda as the ill-fated Veronica, but, in the victim role, she’s presented, like so much of this drama, one-dimensionally.
Starring Kevin Kline, Cesar Ramos, Paulina Gaitan, Alicja Bachleda
Written by Jose Rivera based on an article by Peter Landesman
Directed by Marco Kreuzpaintner
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes