“Trade” is about the kidnapping and selling of girls and boys into sex slavery, a crime that goes on all over the world — including the United States, you may be surprised to learn.
A horrific topic, to be sure, one that people ought to know about but probably would rather block from their minds. Unfortunately, “Trade” feels more exploitative than enlightening — and, fundamentally, it’s a rather rushed thriller that offers more in the way of queasy moments than genuine suspense.
German director Marco Kreuzpaintner, making his American debut, and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Jose Rivera, who showed a surer hand with “The Motorcycle Diaries,” make the mistake of trying to lighten the unbearable weight of the material with forced buddy comedy.
An uncomfortably cast Kevin Kline stars as Texas cop Ray Sheridan, who reluctantly teams up with 17-year-old Jorge (Cesar Ramos) to help him find his younger sister Adriana (Paulina Gaitan), who was abducted near their Mexico City home and is about to be auctioned off online. The girl had been riding the bike Jorge lovingly stole for her as a gift for her 13th birthday.
Merely a petty thief and thug, Jorge nonetheless has shown the implausible wherewithal not only to track down Adriana as she’s being held by her captors in a city of nearly 20 million people, but also to follow the truck she’s been forced into as it travels all the way to Juarez, on the border with El Paso, Texas.
That’s where he hooks up with Ray, who’s in Juarez on his own investigative mission which becomes clearer as the film progresses. To be more specific, Jorge sees Ray from afar and then sneaks into the trunk of his car for illegal passage into the United States — more fodder for Lou Dobbs.
Once Ray discovers Jorge hiding there and the two realize they have similar goals, they awkwardly, and improbably, begin working together. Jorge complains about Ray’s choice in music (classical), Ray complains about Jorge putting his feet on the dashboard. Jorge gets Ray to admit that he has no Mexican friends, although the only Americans Jorge knows are the tourists he’s been robbing at gunpoint with his useless friends. Everyone gets a culture lesson and supposedly is better for it, but the device just feels heavy-handed and out of place.
Meanwhile, Kreuzpaintner keeps cutting back to Adriana as she’s being held with other children and teenagers, forced to dress in sexy clothing and pose seductively for the camera. We’re also asked to watch as a pretty, young Polish woman named Veronica (pop singer Alicja Bachleda, who’s solid) is raped and repeatedly beaten; later, an Asian boy will have a needle full of heroin shoved into his neck to make him more pliable for the creepy middle-aged man who has purchased him through a Web site for $25,000.
It’s all stomach-turning stuff, but Kreuzpaintner’s directness suggests that he’s just trying to shock us. Maybe he thinks we need to be shocked to pay attention to such horrors (“Trade” was inspired by a 2003 New York Times magazine article) but there’s not much artistry in that.
A documentary about sex trafficking might have been more powerful. Dramatizing the subject in this fashion, with a race-against-time road trip, breathless online bidding and a couple of different happy endings, simply cheapens it.