Miami kingpin Estelle (Kate Bosworth) is looking for insurance. Not because she doesn’t trust her usual muscle Cuda (Antonio Banderas) anymore, but because she’s not sure how much time he has left in the tank let alone how well he’s going to adapt to a world running on online currency. Stuck in jail for a decade, his return is therefore just in time to train his replacement: a street fighter named Stray (Mojean Aria) who makes a living always battling above his weight class. The assumption is that he already has what it takes physically to handle himself when collecting Estelle’s taxes from the gangsters and lowlifes operating in her territory. So, if he learns even a fraction of Cuda’s patience and experience, he’ll turn out just fine.

Director Richard Hughes and screenwriter W. Peter Iliff ensure we know Stray isn’t necessarily built for that world, though. If he were, he would have joined long ago. He’s a scrapper, not a killer. He psyches himself up to do whatever’s necessary to win fights and hopes the earnings pay enough rent so he can do it again. Estelle’s offer can’t help being alluring as a result. And she knows it. Beat some people up, let Cuda kill them, and see where things go. Maybe he’ll take to the killing part himself too. The question then becomes whether that potential metamorphosis will ultimately place his loyalty in Estelle’s or Cuda’s corner. Because while their corners are aligned at the start, a choice will eventually need to be made.

And it’s all because of Cuda’s daughter Lola’s sweet sixteen. The reason: he’s not invited. Miss that many celebrations and the desire to want you at the next wears thin. He’s cognizant enough to know he only has himself to blame. So, when he sees someone her age in trouble, he steps in to help. He gives Billie (Zolee Griggs) everything Lola won’t take. Assuaging his guilt through a surrogate stranger. The biggest difference, of course, is that Lola lives in the suburbs. Billie’s on those same streets where Stray fights and thus vulnerable to getting caught up in the underground world Cuda is paid to protect. Can he simply abandon another young girl? Can he sit back and watch the job that ruined his life ruin Stray’s?

The Enforcer becomes a sort of “This is Your Life” scenario for Cuda. Here’s a man who has nothing but money and regrets, gazing upon two others that still have room to hope. Stray and Billie don’t need to be consumed by Estelle. They have options—the same ones he had but was too blind to see. So, why not open their eyes and be the change he never found for himself? He can set them free, but only if they’re willing to take the opportunity once it’s given. It might not seem like much, but this is the crucial detail that allows the film to be so much better than it probably has any right to be. Cuda is merely a voice. They must choose to listen.

Estelle is therefore little more than a catalyst. Where she sends Cuda and Stray matters plot-wise and conveniently coincides with where they need to go character-wise too, but she is simply their destruction. She’s pulling the strings that ensure they will always be left empty despite the money she puts in their pockets. That’s how she maintains control. It’s why Cuda has become such a huge liability—his perspective is able to provide an alternative. He knows they don’t have to sell their souls or earn excessive wealth. Love is everything and it’s the one thing they cannot have while under Estelle’s thumb. Because she will always come first. She owns them. Refuse her orders and someone else will take your spot the moment after they kill you.

Iliff’s script and Hughes’ direction might not provide anything we haven’t seen before, but both allow the actors the necessary room to give us what we need to stay invested. Don’t therefore expect a lot of exposition or much depth when it comes to who they run across or where they meet. Their sphere is miniscule. The person who kidnaps Billie is exactly who you think and the place she’s taken is exactly where she needs to be for Cuda to find her as quickly as possible. The bookie (Luke Bouchier’s Pay-check) at Stray’s fights is Freddie the sex trafficker’s (2 Chainz) lieutenant and the dancer Stray falls for (Alexis Ren’s Lexus) is on Estelle’s payroll. It’s clean, simple, and easy so the performances can shine.

We feel the push and pull occurring beneath the surface where Stray is concerned. Aria lends a sense of desperation that prevents the character from being another heavy like the others on-screen. He’s a survivor. Griggs lends a similar urgency to Billie. She’s not in the film that much (her disappearance triggers much of the action), but The Enforcer is never better than her introductory sequence opposite Banderas—two strangers feeling each other out and realizing they can let their guards down. And he’s the star. Everything revolves around Banderas’ Cuda whether he’s in control of the situation or not. Lola’s mother tells him that their daughter is old enough to know what it is he does and he’s finally old enough to realize what it cost him.

Cuda continues doing what he’s told because he has a job to do and because the routine hasn’t changed much since he’s been gone. He knows the people he deals with will either do what he says or deserve what he does and that’s fine. The stuff Freddie is doing (and Estelle allows to be done) is different, though. You could pick apart the fact that it’s not that different (gambling and drugs affect children too) or you can enjoy the bloody affair that ensues because Cuda has officially grown tired of constantly moving the line. Will Stray have his back and turn against his new employer? Or will he thank Cuda for job opening? It’s not rocket science which he picks, but the result is worthwhile, nonetheless.

The Enforcer hits limited release and VOD on September 23.

Grade: C+

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