Down and Dangerous is a low-brow film with lofty ambitions, a crime drama funded for $38,000 on Kickstarter that tries everything it can to belong on the same shelf as a Michael Mann film — and it very nearly succeeds, which is a far greater accomplishment than anyone could reasonably expect from that amount of money being spent on this kind of material.

Paul Boxer (John T. Woods) is a resourceful and successful drug smuggler with a knack for creativity. But when a deal goes south, he suddenly finds himself trapped between a powerful drug lord (Ernest Curcio), the corrupt DEA, and an old flame (Paulie Rojas), while the mysterious and dangerous man (Ross Marquand) responsible for the death of Paul’s associates closes in for the kill. Somehow, against all odds, Paul must find a way to do more than just survive: he has to win.

Based on writer/director Zack Forsman’s father’s brief career as a drug smuggler, Down and Dangerous attempts to create a slick homage to the blue-tinted pulp cinema of the late 80s and early 90s, back when cinematographers composed static shots bathed in carefully abstract splashes of light instead of relying on the “realism” of quickly edited handheld footage. And, for the most part, the film succeeds in achieving a sense of style that is both lovingly retro and confidently modern — like something Joseph Kosinski might have made in film school after watching one too many episodes of Miami Vice. The first half is particularly moody and elegant, though the quality begins to taper off further into the film as less interesting close-ups, lengthy shot-reverse-shot conversations, and cheap gore effects betray the number of pennies being pinched.

The story is a mixed bag. It’s a genre piece through and through, exactly the sort of quintessential cocaine drama it attempts to recreate with a few genuine surprises pleasantly sprinkled in. The story is decently written, with solid dialogue and an attention to detail that lends the story the kind of plausibility that so many of its peers fail to achieve. What prevents it from rising above its genre is the absence of multifaceted characters. Paul is too much of an enigma for us to really connect with him, and despite his clever tactics for transporting contraband, he is too predictable in his motives and choices to really draw your interest. Far more intriguing is Ross Marquand’s character Henry, who seems to thoroughly enjoy a complicated life, but we don’t spend enough time with him to really get anywhere truly interesting.

But the story is nowhere near as erratic as the performances, which range from John T. Woods’ stoic channeling of Kevin Costner to Ernest Curcio’s teeth-chomping impression of a coke-addled Gerard Butler. The best of the bunch is Ross Marquand, who gives his character depth and believability despite the lack of screen time. The worst is Paulie Rojas, who overacts when she should play it straight and remains wooden when she needs to emote. It’s hard to guess how much better the film would have been if the romantic pairing had any chemistry, but there is no doubt this is the film’s crucial failing. Our protagonist’s main motivation is his love for this woman, and if the romance isn’t engaging, why should the audience care about a man we barely know?

Still, despite the fact that the low budget becomes obvious at times and despite having a dead weight where it should have a heart, Down and Dangerous manages to craft enough moments of scintillating élan to make a compelling argument for the possibilities of crowd-sourced, inexpensive, and impassioned cinema. Earnest and highly flawed, this film is still in many ways a preferable viewing experience to the sleek, cynical commercialism of assembly-line Hollywood entertainment.