“Tough guy with heart of gold” is the cliché that provides the gist to “The Enforcer,” and nothing much turns up to refresh or complicate that hoary hook. This criminal-underworld thriller benefits from Antonio Banderas’ star charisma as a veteran mob strong-arm who turns against his own organization in order to rescue an imperiled teen. Richard Hughes’ feature directorial debut also elevates matters somewhat with a slick and stylish presentation. But the results remain too hogtied by original “Point Break” scribe W. Peter Iliff’s routine, elemental screenplay to rise above the level of disposable genre fodder.
Cuda (Banderas) is just out of prison, having dutifully taken the heat for deeds done in service to Miami syndicate boss Estelle (Kate Bosworth). He hopes to restore relations with his 15-year-old daughter, but she’s wary after his long absence, his ex-wife outright hostile. Perhaps as a regretful result, he takes a fatherly interest in Billie (Zolee Griggs), a foster-home runaway who’s also 15. He prevents her getting in trouble for shoplifting, securing a motel room so she’ll be off the streets he’s all too aware are unsafe. Yet Billie is soon abducted from that short-term haven, presumably by sex traffickers, and it doesn’t take Cuda long to figure out that the perps are very likely tied to his own employer.
This is the kind of movie that decries exploitation of the innocent while nonetheless giving us many a lurid eyeful of barely-clad babes in strip clubs, kinky sex dungeons, etc. Even more fundamentally problematic is our having to swallow that Cuda — aka “The Barracuda” — is a famously savage enforcer who duly lays waste to numerous miscreants here, yet somehow now feels compelled to risk all for one wide-eyed youth. Did it not occur to him before that Estelle’s enterprises run on the fuel of such victimization? It is somehow beyond the script’s scope to acknowledge any contradiction, or evolution, in his behavior. He’s just a good bad guy, that’s all.
Though it stings a bit to see him thus wasted so soon after exceptional, range-stretching turns in movies like “Official Competition” and “Pain and Glory,” Banderas does bring dignity and gravitas to a role that might’ve easily lent itself to wooden machismo postures. If he can’t improve the material, at least his presence helps soft-pedal its banality. Saddled with some of the worst dialogue, Bosworth lends her villainess a stock honey-voiced duplicity that’s one-note until Estelle’s florid exit scene. Decked out in a black vamp wig, that character provides disappointingly scant opportunity to an adept performer who just limned myriad layers of ambiguity in both “House of Darkness” and “The Immaculate Room.”
A third lead of sorts is Mojean Aria, as a rootless young streetfighter who becomes Cuda’s professional protégé. The fact that this figure is called “Stray” tells you just how much thought went into the writing, a lack this talented Australian actor can’t do much to flesh out. Supporting parts are competently filled, a few uneven efforts being from personnel drafted from the worlds of modeling, hip-hop, “internet celebrity” and so forth.
“The Enforcer” gets by on neon-noir style for its first hour or so, DP Callan Green’s widescreen images and other design contributions laying on “hot” colors to attractively convey a mostly-nocturnal Miami flavor. (Their success is underlined by the viewer’s surprise when closing credits reveal this movie was actually shot in Thessaloniki, Greece.) Bodies pile high in a climactic 20 minutes that reveal Hughes has a decent flair for staging action, even if some events really strain credulity. Editors Damian Gomez and Mattias Morheden’s smooth pacing makes for an easy if not particularly tense or exciting watch throughout.
But the tragic dimension the film aims for — not helped by its opening with a major spoiler of things to come — can’t be realized with so little depth to draw on. Reaching for the grandiose, it never grasps anything beyond the generic.