A remake of a 2011 Mexican movie that only played film festivals stateside, Miss Bala (** out of four) follows in the footsteps of such recent efforts as Peppermint and Everly in that it takes a standard Liam Neeson or Bruce Willis programmer and injects it with a heavy dose of girl power.
In Peppermint and Everly, the heroine fought for the love of family. In Miss Bala, Gloria (Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez) fights for the love of her friend. A Latin-American makeup artist working in Hollywood, Gloria returns to Tijuana to visit her best friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo), a beauty who’s preparing to enter the Miss Baja California pageant. With Gloria in tow, Suzu goes to a local nightclub to schmooze with Saucedo (Damian Alcazar), the local police chief and primary benefactor of the beauty contest. But once cartel leader Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordoba) and his posse bust into the nightclub to carry out an assassination attempt on Saucedo, all hell breaks loose, and Gloria loses track of her friend.
What follows next is a plunge into hell for Gloria, as her attempts to find Suzu place her squarely in the hands of Lino and his outfit. To survive, she must perform dirty deeds for her captor, including running drugs across the border to an American contact (Anthony Mackie). As if this isn’t dangerous enough, Gloria also becomes a pawn of DEA agent Brian Reich (Matt Lauria), whose wretched treatment of her reveals him to be not much better than the drug dealers.
While the masterful Sicario revealed the complexities of the US-Mexico drug wars, Miss Bala is content to toss aside all sociopolitical context and serve up a straightforward thriller. That would be fine if the movie actually got the job done, but Miss Bala registers as no more than a formulaic action yarn. Part of the problem rests in its central character. While director Catherine Hardwicke and scripter Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer take great pains to give Cordoba’s Lino all the great angles and all the detailed backstory, Gloria remains a flat and colorless character throughout. She’s a girl who’s less power and more puff, and her continued status as a naïve and helpless hostage hardly makes her a feminist heroine — if anything, the film repeatedly goes out of its way to insult her looks and her intelligence through dialogue provided by insignificant secondary characters. While all this might conceivably make sense in the context of the story about an innocent caught in an unfamiliar world, it also renders her last-minute, late-inning transformation unbelievable and illogical, a decision that feels more geared toward building a potential franchise than anything else.
Hardwicke, best known for directing the raw teen drama Thirteen and the first (and best) of the Twilight pictures, stages the copious shootouts with assured confidence, though she fails to provide any tension in the more individual moments (such as when Gloria tries to plant a bug in Lino’s phone or cross the border in a cash- and drug-filled car).
Rodriguez handles all of her assignments well enough, and it’s nice to see an unlikely actress going the Liam Neeson route. But when it comes to Miss Bala itself, the film is sure to leave audiences feeling taken.