What do you call a movie that is so well-meaning it’s hard to criticize, yet so sporadic in execution it’s hard to be effusive? In this case, you call it Skin in the Game, a nobly-intended thriller about human trafficking that tackles an important issue by giving it a long deserving big-screen Hollywood treatment but then is undercut by tropes that veer it into TV crime territory.

“Inspired by true events,” as the film pointedly notes, Skin in the Game has the difficult task of spotlighting a vital social topic without descending into exploitative sex and violence. And for the most part, it succeeds, but the low-budget movie occasionally resembles an episode of Law & Order: Vigilante Unit, with cardboard villains and little character arc.

Directed by first-time filmmaker Adisa and written by Steven Palmer, the film takes a topic Hollywood typically relegates to impoverished nations and brings it stateside, in this case, Los Angeles. We are introduced to Lena (Erica Ash), a former prostitute who has turned her life around by dedicating herself to helping abused women out of the sex trade business.

It’s a strong intro, and perhaps the best scene of the movie. Lena, called to a seedy hotel to retrieve a prostitute from an abusive pimp, sets the film’s tone immediately: the language is rough, vulgar, misogynistic and authentic. Violence is to be accepted, not avoided, and Lena’s understanding of that world saves the young woman’s life. It’s an effective prelude to the world we assume we’re about to enter.

Suddenly, however, that tenor changes into a buddy cop thriller when 15-year-old Dani (Sammi Hanratty) is abducted in broad daylight off a suburban sidewalk and finds herself immersed in the human trafficking underworld. To Skin’s credit, the film takes care to show multiple angles of the trafficking plague, from criminals to victims to the cops trying to sort one from the other. Skin also emphasizes that women can victimize, too; Dani finds herself in a prostitution ring led by the ruthless Eve (Angelica Celaya), a character so vile she’d make a good Bond villain.

After learning police cannot act on a missing person report for at least 24 hours, Lena and Dani’s mother Sharon (Elisabeth Harnois) take matters into their own hands, triggering the movie’s unsteadiest moments. The women comb the streets like veteran detectives, banter like buddy cops, and threaten to kill uncooperative suspects with a gusto that would make Charles Bronson proud.

Alas, what the film needs is more humanization. It explains that Lena and Sharon were once close friends (Lena is Dani’s godmother), but never reveals the fracture that ended the friendship and kept them from talking for years. The film is also strangely lit, sometimes as artificially brightened as a prime time TV show; Skin oddly rejects the use of many shadows for a story about the shadowy world of sex trafficking. And “inspired by true events” is too vague here, particularly for a film on this issue: we get no epilogue about the characters portrayed, their fates, or whether they were even real.

Still, it’s Ash (Starz’s Survivor’s Remorse) who keeps the film propelled and, at times, even riveting. Lena is utterly believable as a woman who entered prostitution unwillingly and paid the price for leaving the profession. She keeps joints in a cigarette case and gumption in her heart; her tough questioning of former colleagues and employers gives Skin its heart, even if it is an occasionally melodramatic one.

Skin in the Game is hardly going to set the standard for human trafficking films. But given the rarity of movies on the issue, particularly in the U.S., setting the standard may be less important than setting precedent.