How’s this for a movie idea? A couple’s romantic mountain getaway turns deadly when they accidentally take a sex trafficker’s cell phone.
Pretty exciting, huh? That synopsis promises lots of scenes in which our heroes Brea (Paula Patton) and John (Omar Epps) escape from the trafficker’s greasy biker gang, and that stuff does happen a few times in Traffik.
Literally. A few scenes. Three, maybe four, and all of them so poorly shot and coreographed, with no clear spacial designations, that they fail to thrill or shock.
So if only 10 of Traffik‘s minutes fulfill its pulpy promise, how does writer/director Deon Taylor fill out the rest of the movie’s 96 minute runtime? With domestic drama, moral philosophizing, and lots of gazing at Patton.
The domestic drama takes up most of the film’s first half, during which journalist Brea loses her job, John discusses his plans with his best friend Darren (Laz Alonso), sports agent Darren deals with tempramental clients, John and Brea have a fight, Darren and wife Malia (Roselyn Sanchez) fight, John and Brea affirm their love for one another, Darren repeatedly betrays John, various infidelities are revealed, and so on.
That’s a whole tv season’s worth of plot, shoved into 45 minutes. None of them get resolved and none advance the central “couple chased by bikers” story.
But as extraneous and unsatisfying as the overplotting is, its not as tiresome as the movie’s tendancy to moralize. It doesn’t matter if its a friendly dinner, a job performance review, or a hostile standoff — if two or more characters share a scene, you can be sure that one will start monologuing like a supervillain about quality journalism or Americans being oblivious to the suffering of others or how garment sweatshops are just another form of human trafficking. And even those aren’t as obnoxious as Traffik‘s most obnoxious moment: when it tells us thar trafficking is the new slavery, by setting a montage of kidnapped women to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.”
There’s validity to all of these points, and they’re worth exploring in film, but Traffik doesn’t really take them seriously. Instead, it just declares its deep thought and resumes gawking at Patton,
The camera leers at Patton as she walks pensively through her apartment in a sexy leotard, as she goes for a dip in her underwear, as she walks around the house in only a tiny jacket, as she and John have sex in their car on the highway in the middle of the day (?). Whatever the situation, the makers of Traffik want viewers to know that they find Paula Patton very attractive and like to stare at her.
To be fair, the movie does also call upon her dramatic abilities, often using her reactions as the primary indicator of a scene’s tone. The weight of a character’s death is relayed by lingering on her crying face for what feels like minutes, and the beauty of a mountain view is communicated not so much by showing us the view but by panning around to her face. Occasionally, this Patton-centric storytelling work, like when she’s scared or bewildered. But because nearly all of her facial expressions waiver between confusion and concern, viewers usually have to guess at the scene’s meaning (until another character explains it all in a speech, that is).
Fortunately, Patton shares most of her scenes with Epps, who brings such easy charisma and confidence to his role as the blandly likable boyfriend that you wonder why he isnt’ a household name. And while dependable character actors William Fichtner and Missi Pyle don’t show up enough to enliven the dull proceedings, Alonso deserves special credit for making Darren work as well as he does. Darren constantly screws over his wife and friends, who immediately forgive him, and we kind of go along with it because Alonso channels all his charm and humanity into the character. On the page, he’s the type of utterly hateful narcissist who only makes sense in a slasher movie because you know he’s dying a good death.
In other words, Darren’s the type of character who belongs in the movie suggested by Traffik‘s plot synopsis, not in the messy preachy drama that it actually is.
Which should be fine. Pulp cinema isn’t for everyone and, despite its lowbrow content, it isn’t really easy to make. And human traffiking is a very real and very horrific crime, and worthy to be attacked by all corners of society, including the movies.
But Traffik isn’t exciting or fun enough to embrace its exploitation aesthetic, nor is it smart enough to say anything of value about the weighty topics it courts. Your time’s better spent watching a thoughtful documentary or an entertaining piece of trash, not this pretentious and bumbling twaddle.