Miss Bala

Miss Bala is kind of a big deal. A major studio action movie starring a Latina actress? You don't get many of those. That's a welcome bit of representation, and the fact that the director is a woman also gives the film a slightly different flavor than other movies that are comparable in terms of style and subject matter. Even if it doesn't quite fulfill its potential, Miss Bala is interesting enough to make it worth at least a DVD or VOD rental.

Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight) guides this American remake of the 2012 Mexican thriller of the same name. Gina Rodriguez plays Gloria, a make-up artist who travels south of the border to help her friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) win a beauty contest. They go out partying at a club, only to have a gang of cartel members come in and shoot the place up. Long story short, Gloria sees them, Suzu goes missing, and the only way for the friends to be reunited is for Gloria to help the cartel leader, Lino (the excellent Ismael Cruz Cordova), smuggle drug money to a weapons dealer (Anthony Mackie). But there's also a DEA agent (Matt Lauria) who wants her to help him bring Lino down. She quickly realizes that none of these people can be trusted.

The first hour of Miss Bala is fairly compelling. The benefit of having a female director is most apparent here. Plotwise, the film is about Gloria ending up trapped in a confusing situation that seems to offer significant peril no matter which way she turns. A male director probably would have focused on the “woman in danger” idea. Hardwicke goes a step further, taking care to emphasize that Gloria scrutinizes everything going on around her, in case she needs this information later on. One of the best scenes finds Lino teaching her to use an assault rifle. She pretends to be nervous about it, yet we sense that she's paying rapt attention, storing the details inside her mental data bank for use another time. There are several sequences of this nature, which gives Miss Bala a cool feminist vibe.

Gina Rodriguez is extremely well-cast in the lead role. She's able to convey that dichotomy between what Gloria is showing the people trying to manipulate her and what's really going on internally. Her goal is to rescue Suzu -- and make it out alive herself. Rodriguez indicates how the character absorbs every new horrifying situation, attempting to master it.

Miss Bala has some well-staged action sequences and a couple of nifty, dark twists. Where it falters primarily is in the last thirty minutes. For reasons too complex to go into, Gloria must enter the beauty pageant in Suzu's place. Her status as a competitor has life-or-death consequences for multiple individuals and provides her only means of escape. It's a potentially suspenseful finale, yet the film rushes through it, never taking the time to build the tension necessary to make her transition into full-on badass fully credible. We need to see more.

That's a consistent issue throughout the movie, even the parts that work. Miss Bala could use a little more character development of everyone who's not Gloria or Lino, a little more expansion of the finale, and a little more grittiness. (This is an inherently R-rated story inexplicably turned into one that's PG-13.)

I somehow never saw the original Miss Bala, so a comparison isn't possible. This version has some elements that work nicely, and others that are lacking. Gina Rodriguez and Catherine Hardwicke nevertheless strive to give us a credible portrait of a woman who refuses to be a victim and uses her intellect to outsmart those trying to control her. Although not everything about the movie succeeds, there's absolutely something worthy in that.

out of 4

Miss Bala is rated PG-13 for sequences of gun violence, sexual and drug content, thematic material, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.