Once again, a distributor chose to hold back a film from reviewers that turns out to be better than its peek-a-boo marketing strategy implied. That movie, "Traffik," is an effective weekend-from-hell thriller with a vital message, a terrific lead performance by Paula Patton and some unexpectedly dimensional storytelling from writer-director Deon Taylor ("Meet the Blacks").
Patton plays Brea, a conscientious Sacramento newspaper reporter whose style-over-substance editor (William Fichtner) has grown impatient with her deep investigative process and wants to let Brea go — on her birthday, no less.
Meanwhile, Brea is dating John (Omar Epps), a kind and attentive auto mechanic who's planning to pop the question during a surprise getaway to a mansion in the mountains loaned to him by his longtime pal, Darren (Laz Alonso), an obnoxious sports agent with a fed-up girlfriend, Malia (Roselyn Sanchez).
But en route to their romantic escape, Brea and John have a nasty gas-station encounter with a hostile biker gang that, despite the mediating presence of a local sheriff's deputy (Missi Pyle), does not bode well for the lovers. Brea's unnerving bathroom encounter with a desperate-looking woman, Cara (Dawn Olivieri), will also come back to haunt her.
Still, before the movie's inevitable nightmare begins, Brea and John enjoy each other in their eye-popping retreat's sexy infinity pool, all gorgeously captured by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dante Spinotti ("L.A. Confidential," "The Insider"), whose burnished lensing decidedly elevates the entire picture.
Unfortunately, Brea and John's amorous buzz is killed when, later that night, Darren and Malia show up earlier than planned, an awkward arrival that brings out Darren's uglier side and causes a brief rupture among the foursome.
But that quarrel will prove child's play compared with what's in store for the group when Brea discovers an incriminating satellite phone that, she realizes, was slipped into her handbag during her bathroom run-in with the mysterious Cara. Alarming photos on the cell (which Brea unlocks a bit too easily) and a call list of foreign numbers point, at least to alert journalist Brea, to the presence of human trafficking.
Naturally, someone else wants that phone and, as is the case in movies like this, will stop at nothing to get it.
That would be the trafficking ring's leader (Luke Goss), a smooth but ruthless Brit, whose minions, not surprisingly, are those surly bikers from the gas station. And they're all on their way.
When this wild bunch descends upon the mansion, Taylor capably ratchets up the tension as Brea and John land in a deadly game of cat and mouse with the criminals. The pursuit takes several unexpected turns in the body count department — and galvanizes Brea into impressive take-charge action.
This involving film turns darker and grimmer in a series of violent and disturbing ways, with Taylor keeping his narrative endgame in focus throughout.
Brea emerges as the heart and soul of the piece and Patton digs into her well-etched role with strength and conviction. But it's not all mayhem oriented. Early scenes in which an uncertain Brea considers a future with the perhaps unlikely John (Epps is also solid here) have a believable warmth and integrity.
Pyle, deftly playing against type, also deserves a shout-out. Without spilling any beans, suffice to say she makes for one memorable law enforcer.
Rated: R, for violent and disturbing material, language throughout, some drug use and sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: In general release