For Kali Reis, the world champion boxer and campaigner for Native rights in the US, the taut revenge thriller Catch the Fair One is as personal as filmmaking gets. The half-Native American, half-Cape Verdean fighter is an active member of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMWIG) movement, and gets a story credit as well as fills the lead role of an ex-boxer who goes undercover in a sex trafficking ring to track down her missing sister. It’s a grimly authentic affair with an untutored but blazingly charismatic turn from Reis that resists easy heroics; instead there’s a queasy vein of hopeless self-flagellation throughout with hardly a germ of redemption to be found in the face of unspeakable evil.

Kaylee (Reis) has been crippled with guilt since her sister Weeta (Mainaku Borrero) was snatched from the street while walking home from Kaylee’s gym. With her professional career in the past she has nevertheless been training harder than ever and against much bigger fighters. She’s got a lead on Weeta’s whereabouts, as a victim of an organised sex trafficking ring that caters for punters with a penchant for Native girls. She gets herself into the latest ‘batch’ of women, with the intention of finding her sister.

Catch the Fair One is a propulsive prospect from the off, as lean and agile as Reis herself. She completely convincing in the role, albeit as a dramatically heightened version of herself. And it takes its subject very seriously indeed. Kaylee is no John Wick dispatching legions of goons. Instead the revenge vibe is more akin to the stripped-back, almost subdued likes of Blue Ruin, or other female-focussed thrillers like Blood on her Name or A Good Woman is Hard to Find. Kaylee fights when she has to, using whatever means at her disposal. There’s a distinct sense that her habit of sleeping with a razor blade in her mouth is an act of scourging as if she was a religious ascetic, but it certainly comes in handy in a tight spot. But there’s never any doubt that she is way over her head, and the question is if she escapes with her life, will it be at the cost of her humanity?

Those looking for non-stop action may be disappointed, but Catch the Fair One never sets out to be entertainment, and it’s as far removed from exploitation as you can get – it’s almost the anti-Taken. That’s not to say that there is no action. There is more than enough, and it’s well-handled by Wladyka, but it’s of the more realistic short, sharp, shock variety. For the most part Kaylee’s assailants are non-descript enough to blur into one. You can understand the impulse on the part of the filmmakers to make them faceless cogs in a monolithically evil machine, but this is usually the reserve of the more illicit thrills that the film seeks to distance itself from. The exception is Daniel Henshall, who personifies the banality of evil in a similar way to his terrifying turn as John Bunting in Snowtown.

But this is Reis’ show all the way. It remains to be seen if her onscreen presence remains undimmed in a role that isn’t so close to her own persona, but this is certainly a startling debut role and Catch the Fair One is overall a very solid revenge thriller with a distinctly bleak tone and an admirable resistance to easy heroics and crowd-pleasing fireworks.

Screening as part of Glasgow Film Festival 2022