Where to begin? Lowest-common denominator filmmaking in the guise of a “social problem picture,” “Trade” does indeed make us mad, as director Marco Kreuzpaintner has said he wanted – but not in the way he intends. So much that’s so wrong and so bad flies out of “Trade” so quickly that the audience practically has to duck and cover from shrapnel. From its flagrant exoticization-cum-demonization of Mexico City to its predictably trendy, faceless aesthetic to its uproariously hammy acting, “Trade” is a disaster from the top down. Obviously the work of a filmmaker who has genuinely no ideas about the ethics of storytelling or representation, “Trade” is essentially “Hostel Part Two” but designed to make you feel good for having learned about “something.”
And what is that something? Why it’s the hot topic of human trafficking, an undeniably serious human-rights issue that’s become the narrative playground of exploitation hacks looking for credibility: amoral genre filmmakers, you now have your social problem of choice! It’s apparent from the get-go that Kreuzpaintner has more interest in car-crash shock cuts and panties bunched up around molested women’s flailing ankles (that would be eight punches to girls’ faces too many, thank you very much) than exposing the harsh realities of underage sexual slavery or impoverished south-of-the-border life – which incidentally is introduced by this German filmmaker (whose last film was, oddly, the misshapen but good-natured gay coming-of-age flick “Summer Storm” – more underage flesh, but sun-dappled and safe) when wispy protagonist Jorge (Cesar Ramos) robs an American tourist and says, “What do weee doooo to greengos who don’t respect Mexicans?” before squirting him with a water gun and laughing, “Die, beetch!” Cue upbeat mariachi music.
When Jorge’s adorable little twelve-year-old sister is kidnapped right off of the streets by Russian criminals and held hostage until she can be sold online to the highest American bidder, he takes off on a border-crossing odyssey that the director and his screenwriter Jose Rivera must think is some sort of panoramic look at U.S./Mexico relations. When Jorge beseeches community patriarch Don Victor to aid him in his quest to find his sister and bring down the Russians, the Godfather brushes him off, saying, “Ever heard of globalization?” Naturally with this level of “political” address, we can’t be surprised that Kreuzpaintner and Rivera have more of a knack for queasy, thoughtless exploitation, of which there are so many nadirs it’s impossible to keep count: little Adriana forced to pose seductively for a camera while her brother clenches his jaw from behind a rock; Adriana walking in slow motion through tall reeds on her way to being defiled by an old man; Adriana’s beautiful fellow slave, Veronica (Alicja Bachleda-Curus), jumping from a cliff while a maudlin Rufus Wainwright song blasts from the soundtrack.
It’s mind-numbing that anyone could think this tale as old as time (a parade of grotesque images of women being abused) can be recouped for conscientious topicality, and even if one person falls for it, then all is lost. Naturally, a righteous straight white American male must come along not only to save Adriana but also to restore the besmirched moral righteousness of the U.S. So Jorge enlists the aid of lonely Texas cop Ray, played by Kevin Kline (who’s adrift with the astonishingly bad script – Ray to Jorge: “Why should I believe you?”; five minutes later, Jorge to Ray: “Why should I trust you?” – and called “gringo” a lot by Jorge). The two enact a wholly inappropriate buddy-picture routine, fighting over car radio selections and coming together despite cultural differences. All of this culminates in a sleazy, despicable sequence (see also “Hostel Part Two”) in which Kline, to save the girl, must log on to the nefarious sex-slavery website and outbid all other comers for ownership of Adriana; naturally Kreuzpaintner edits this into a climactic, techno-thriller set piece, with fingers furiously typing and “Die Hard“-esque music pummeling the soundtrack. Any viewer who emerges from this tasteless display still thinking that Kreuzpaintner has any profound regard for the world’s sad realities has no business watching movies.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]