Catch the Fair One

I guess I would classify CATCH THE FAIR ONE (2021) as a thriller more than an action movie, but it’s a certified badass thriller. It’s the first acting role for Kali Reis, the former world champion boxer who recently starred with Jodie Foster in True Detective: Night Country (her reward for this, I believe). Reis also co-wrote the movie with director Josef Kubota Wladyka.

Reis plays Kaylee “K.O.” Uppashaw, a former pro boxer whose younger sister Weeta (Mainaku Borrero) went missing two years ago. Kaylee doesn’t fight anymore, she’s living at a women’s shelter trying to stay off drugs and working as a waitress. But she’s also in her BATMAN BEGINS stage of building up to find her sister. Her friend Brick (fellow pro boxer Shelly Vincent), who reminds me of Joe Pesci (in a good way), not only helps her train to wrestle and fight men much larger then her, but finds a recruiter (Isabelle Chester, THE FALLING WORLD) willing to take a bribe to bring her in with a “new batch” of workers for the traffickers she believes have Weeta.

After being transported in a van with newspapers covering the windows, Kaylee has what might as well be called an on-boarding with Stan (Michael Drayer, Mr. Robot), who clinically asks her questions about herself like he’s making an assessment. He tells her he likes her piercings and tattoos, but less like he’s complimenting her than listing her selling points. He asks about her heritage (Native with a dad from Cape Verde) and calls it “a pretty cool mix” while he’s loading up a syringe.

I remember in THEY CALL HER ONE EYE a.k.a. THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE the pimps enslaved young women by forcibly shooting them up and getting them addicted. He does that here and there’s a threat involved – “I’m not asking” when she tells him “I’m clean” – then he belts her arm, tells her to make a fist, like a medical assistant taking blood. He’s done this a million times. Luckily the worst he does after that is make her pose for him while he jerks off. (I appreciate that we don’t have to see her further degraded after that. We already know what this business is about.)

Next she’s brought to Bobby (Daniel Henshall, THE BABADOOK, GHOST IN THE SHELL, OKJA), the guy they say handles the Native girls. He acts a little closer to actually nice. Briefly, anyway. Without the Australian accent I didn’t recognize Henshall as the actor who played Dolly, the scariest creep in THE ROYAL HOTEL. Things quickly go south and, just over a third of the way into the movie, it turns from a fact finding mission to a fight – the titular fair one. And I was surprised how intense and brutal it gets, considering the realistic texture and deliberate pacing of the set up.

Something that seems very accurate and depressing about the movie is how matter-of-factly it shows no possibility of the system ever helping in this situation. In some movies she might be, like, getting evidence to bring to a sympathetic police detective or something. Here an ex-cop sets her up, and the only person who ever calls the police is calling them on Kaylee. Bobby tells her “Nobody’s looking” for Weeta “because nobody cares.” That’s their whole moderus operandi. Kaylee’s only very questionable hail mary long shot at justice requires already being a professional fighter, then further training to fight better than that, saving up her money to pay off sleazy people, risking her life, degrading herself and possibly getting addicted to heroin again by going undercover as a sex worker, and then she has to be willing to do extreme things not only to bad people, but to their families.

That’s another thing that’s interesting, and feels real – the traffickers all act less like movie archetypes of criminals than like people passing as ordinary citizens. Bobby is a dude who wears a collared shirt under a sweater. After he ties up Kaylee in a basement and threatens her mother he goes and makes himself a cup of coffee. When the boss of the whole operation Willie (Kevin Dunn, TRANSFORMERS) shows up, Bobby says, “Hey, Dad.” A guy helping run Dad’s business. Later he goes home to his wife Linda (Tiffany Chu, Artificial) and son Bobby Jr. (Wesley Leung) and there’s a couple minutes of normal family stuff while we giddily wait for Kaylee to appear behind him Michael Myers. Of course, there’s underlying menace, like Tiffany widening her eyes and robotically beginning to fry more eggs as soon as Junior complains about his being runny.

Tiffany is an interesting character because we’re not sure how complicit she is, and she seems caught in the middle. She admits to Kaylee that yes, she’s aware of “what this piece of shit does,” but we also know he abuses her and she’s scared of the family/organization. When she leads Kaylee to Willie’s home (which seems like the mansion of a local businessman who owns a bunch of property, not of a crime lord) it’s ambiguous how much she wants to help and how much she just wants to be a good hostage to protect her son. And either way you have to wince at her and her kid being roughed up and threatened by Kaylee.

But Kaylee is such a great character and performance. Reis (who was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for this) has the menacing physical presence of an action star, but Kaylee is still very much an underdog, having to work for each minor victory and frequently getting injured. It’s also a very layered, internal performance. Her anger makes it easy for her to act cold-as-ice when threatening people, but we also see her fear, grief and self-loathing.

At the beginning of the movie Kaylee wakes up and notices a bloodstain on her sheets. I thought she had a nosebleed, but then she pulls a razor out from inside her cheek. Then I thought she needed it for protection in the women’s shelter, but later I took it that she was practicing for hiding a blade when she goes undercover. It shows how serious she is about this at the same time as, obviously, making us anticipate when she’ll get to use that thing.

Kaylee’s mom Jaya (Kimberly Guerrero, also the heroine’s mother in Albert Pyun’s RAVEN HAWK!) runs a support group for people in the community whose loved ones have been killed or gone missing. Not a solution to the problem, but a healthy way to continue their lives. But we see how hard it is for some people to express their feelings. One man (Jordan Smith) talking about his daughter realizes it’s making him cry, says “Fuck this. I’m sorry,” and leaves. Kaylee doesn’t even go as far as him, though. She stands outside of the circle just watching, her coat and backpack still on. Ironically it’s Jaya (another complex character in relatively little screen time) who has a hard time sharing what she’s feeling verbally when Kaylee wants to talk to her. Generally they have very different ways of handling this situation, but neither will be good enough.

This is a grim movie. I don’t think there’s any humor, even black humor, and it does not seem very interested in fantasy fulfillment. But Reis says in interviews that she thinks “it isn’t dark enough” considering the topic. If I have one complaint it’s that it wraps up pretty quick, I honestly wanted it to go on longer. But the more I go back over it to write about it the more it seems like the way things end up is inevitable.

Wladyka has one other feature, DIRTY HANDS (2014), his experience mostly coming from TV (Animal Kingdom, Narcos, The Terror, One Piece, Tokyo Vice). He had the idea for the movie and noticed on a boxing profile for Reis that she tries to raise awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous women (a crisis huge enough for its own abbreviation, MMIW), so he approached her about starring and co-writing. “He knew it wasn’t really his story to tell and wanted to tell it the right way,” she told Isaac Feldberg at rogerebert.com.

Interestingly, WIND RIVER was also trying to get the word out about this issue, and Reis has a part in the upcoming sequel WIND RIVER: RISING. I’m glad she’s getting to raise that awareness, but I hope she also gets to do movies not about murders. Put her in CREED IV!

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 27th, 2024 at 2:09 pm and is filed under Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

2 Responses to “Catch the Fair One”

  1. Thanks for reviewing this. Reis was probably my favorite thing about this season of True Detective– a cool new discovery. And it made me curious about her other work.

    And you’re right, she should be in a Creed.

  2. Reis is so good in True Detective, and has made it impossible for me to suspend disbelief when a TV show wants a slender model to play a hardened combat veteran.

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