A serious problem is sensationalized in Marco Kreutzpaintner’s film about the trade in human sex slaves. It wants to be the new “Traffic,” but has nothing of that film’s complexity or subtlety. Instead of addressing the issue with intelligence and power, Jose Rivera’s script opts for buddy-movie cliches, trite narrative coincidences and clumsy suspense gambits. It ends up not illuminating its subject but cheapening it.

The linchpin of Rivera’s narrative is a thirteen-year old girl, Adriana (Paulina Gaitan), who’s abducted from a Mexico City street while she rides a bicycle given her by her older brother Jorge (Cesar Ramos). She’s tossed into a group that already includes Veronica (Alicja Bachleda), a Polish teen who’s been lured to Mexico by a Russian crook with promises of a job, and they’re all to be transported to New Jersey for sale in an Internet auction. The distraught Jorge is determined to rescue her and in the process links up with an unlikely partner, a Texas policeman named Ray (Kevin Kline) who’s in Mexico on a search of his own. Together the duo make their way across the border and to the East Coast to save the girl.

The more harrowing (some would say sensationalistic) moments of the picture focus on the brutal treatment of the captives as they’re smuggled into the U.S. and across country by the operation’s transporters Manuelo (Marco Perez) and Alex (Zack Ward). But much of “Trade” tracks the progress of the reserved Ray and loose cannon Jorge as they bond and plan their moves in the face of government inaction.

And that portion of the picture is frankly banal, consisting of such stuff as the two arguing over what sort of music they should listen to on the car radio. It’s also hobbled by the script’s constant reliance on dumb coincidence to move the plot along. Jorge just happens to bump into the group that includes Adriana on a Mexican City street, although it’s a fairly large urban area, and then just happens to encounter Ray at a house in a deserted Juarez slum, having followed a truck there in a run-down car without apparently ever having to stop for gas. And once they’re on the road the two stumble on one of the captives Jorge recalls from the group at a Texas truck stop—a chance encounter that enables Ray to access the website on which Jorge’s sister will be sold. That in turn sets the stage for a last act that features not only some tawdry eBay-style bidding but a culminating confrontation with the culprits that manages to be both nasty and mawkish, and a coda that wants to warn us about how violence feeds on violence but actually just satisfies a desire for revenge.

There’s a meretricious feel to all this that’s accentuated by the attempt to jazz things up with the kind of hyper, hand-held camerawork that’s become obligatory in such pictures. But cinematographer Daniel Gottschalk can’t sustain the edgy mood, lapsing too often into mundane, clumsy compositions without any strong visual flair. The same disparity is evident in Kreuzpaintner’s direction, which injects some energy and visceral drama into a few scenes, but is curiously plodding for the most part.

Nor do the performances compensate. Ramos is the best of the lot. Jorge may be a conniving, unscrupulous kid (and a bigoted one), but at least the actor invests him with a convincing mixture of cockiness and vulnerability. Kline, by contrast, seems miscast from the start (this is a Texas cop?), and plays everything so calmly that he seems like the enervated eye of a would-be hurricane. Both Gaitan and Bachleda earn sympathy not only for the horrors their characters endure, but also for the fact that they have to play highly challenging sequences that must have been very difficult to shoot but don’t carry the intended emotional payoff. Meanwhile Perez and Ward make one-dimensional villains, and Tim Reid is wasted in the throwaway part of a cop pal of Kline’s.

Human trafficking is unquestionably a horrible international reality, one worthy of serious dramatic (and documentary) exploration. Sadly, “Trade” seems more exploitation than exploration.