Good intentions may have killed more films than miscasting. The newest case in point is Trade, a human trafficking story that comes to screens with no end of good reasons for its existence. As specialists in moral outrage and thinly disguised prurience have known for decades, there is little in the field of human drama that grabs attention like the idea of innocent young (preferably attractive) women being kidnapped and auctioned off into slavery.
As an updated version of a classic "this could be your daughter" sold-into-bondage story, Trade arrives on the scene with at least the appearance of higher motives. The Motorcycle Diaries' writer Jose Rivera's script is based on Peter Landesman's harrowing New York Times Magazine story, "The Girls Next Door," which found an astoundingly extensive network of traffickers who ferried their human cargo across borders with alacrity, often pimping them out of quiet houses on quaint, upscale, suburban streets. The numbers are staggering, with estimates of how many humans are currently held in a state of slavery around the world ranging as high as one million, and the conditions horrifying, with victims snatched away in broad daylight from families who are later threatened should the kidnapped woman try to run. Featuring some appropriately jittery, handheld camerawork, and starting with multiple storylines converging in a Mexico City filled to bursting with people and corruption, Trade for a time seems to have designs on doing for its subject what Traffic did to illuminate the drug war. It doesn't even come close. Article continues below
The filmmakers (led by German director Marco Kreuzpaintner
, under the aegis of producer Roland "Independence Day" Emmerich, slumming here in meaningful cinema) have more than enough raw material to work with, but not the ability to shape it into the gripping film that Trade should be. The story should be dramatic enough, with 13-year-old Adriana (Paulina Gaitan
) snatched off her neighborhood street and sent north with a vanful of other slaves to enter the "tunnel" network into sex slavery. In the tunnel with her, and offering some slight friendship is Veronica (Alicja Bachleda
), a Polish woman who arrived in Mexico City thinking she'd paid for easy access to the United States and a job, only to end up raped, beaten, and drugged. Chasing them in determined fashion is Adriana's street thief of an older brother, Jorge (Cesar Ramos
), who teams up with Ray (Kevin Kline
), a Texas cop with his own motives for investigating the tunnel system.
Whereas Traffic understood instinctively that it could hook audience attention without forcing the issue, Trade has so little faith in the power of its subject matter as to drastically overplay its hand. The story here is the tunnel, with the girls (as well as a quiet young Asian boy) getting handed off from one stage to the next, their humanity being crushed in a systematic and well-practiced fashion. Bachleda is nothing short of heartbreaking to behold, most particularly in a harrowing scene of initiation following an open-air auction in the Texas desert.
But somehow the powerful humanity of these women's plights and Adriana's truncated relationship with the brave Veronica isn't seen as being adequate, and so the film incessantly cuts back to manic Jorge and steady, nearly-bloodless Ray bickering and giving chase. Ramos is good and energetic in his scenes, but plays them at too high a register to really be taken seriously. Kline should be the perfect guy for this movie (his solid decency having made him the closest thing modern Hollywood has to a Henry Fonda), but he seems out of place here, not able to summon the deep reservoir of rage needed for a character such as he. Compared with Bachleda and Gaitan's fierce emoting, the two of them seem to be on vacation.
It all makes for a jarring mess of a movie, one that ends up seeming like no more than a particularly heavy episode of the CBS kidnapping drama Without a Trace.