There’s a “don’t overthink this” watchability to “Miss Bala,” the Hollywood remake of a lean-mean Mexican gangster movie about a beauty queen coerced into doing a drug lord’s murderous bidding.
Don’t give too much thought to the rapid transition the heroine makes from shocked and scared to death to confident enough to tamp down the fear and play both sides of the drug dealers/DEA front lines.
No head shaking at the obvious “heat” the good looking but cold-blooded kingpin is supposed to generate with the kidnapped and traumatized American woman.
And let’s not wallow in the moral ambiguity of a picture that paints the callous corruption of drug dealers, Mexican police and the Drug Enforcement Administration agents as equal on almost all counts.
Because we have to believe that to buy into any of this heroine’s journey from naif to nasty enough to hold her own among monsters.
Catherine “Twilight” Hardwicke’s film, hewing closely to the somewhat sharper 2011 Spanish language B-movie “La Bala,” shows us “the other Tijuana,” a border city with cool buildings, money, swank clubs and people who’d sponsor a beauty pageant. That’s before she delivers the Tijuana generations of drug-trade thrillers have planted in the mind — corrupt, lawless, violent with poor people trapped in the crossfire.
That’s the Tijuana Gloria (Gina Rodriguez) lived in as a girl, which she’s reluctant to return to as an adult. She’s a makeup artist who works in the fashion industry, and she’s come to town to help childhood pal Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) win the Miss Baja California Pageant.
Gloria herself isn’t to be confused with a pageant contestant, as other characters give her the “Ugly Betty” treatment. That’s “foreshadowing” for you.
When they don their disco togs and hit a club, all is swinging and fun until Gloria visits the bathroom. That’s where she sees the Estrellas (star) gang break in and gear up. They’re here to assassinate the police chief.
Their handsome leader (Ismael Cruz Cordova) gives her the chance to escape, but tracking down Suzu slows her down and they’re both trapped when the shooting starts.
Gloria gets out. Where’s Suzu? She tracks down a cop afterwards seeking answers. Mentioning “I saw the men who did this” to the cop turns out to be a mistake. She’s turned over to the gang, asked “Do you want to stay alive?” and given a choice — “Do this one thing for us” and Lino the leader will help her find Suzu.
That “one thing” turns out to be parking a car bomb in front of a DEA “safe house.” Which creates problems when Gloria escapes and runs to safety to the first American accent she hears (Matt Lauria). That leads to her second “unless you help us” threat.
Gloria is trapped, forced to be Lino’s “mule” and forced to be Agent Reich’s (!?) “mole.”
As Gloria, plucky Rodriguez of TV’s “Jane the Virgin” brings a nuanced and underplayed sense of a young woman barely keeping it all together faced with horrific life-and-death choices, one right after another. We get moments of quivering, moist-eyed terror and rage, but Rodriguez made the choice to go with “poker faced,” and sticks with it. She never lets Gloria make the leap to “compelling.”
That gets in the way of Lino’s real-or-feigned attraction for her. It’s not an appearance thing. She’s just not that interesting. Why add her to the gang’s harem of enslaved women? Only the threat against Suzu’s little brother, that they’ll “gut that boy like a chicken,” keeps Gloria on task with them.
The DEA’s threats, lawless, lawyerless and outside of their jurisdiction, are just ridiculous enough to work — in B-movie logic.
Hardwicke gives us a trio of competent if not stylish shootouts, teases us with hints of what COULD happen to Gloria at every turn and brings in a US supplier (Anthony Mackie) to add another tipping point to Gloria’s tightrope walk.
“Tell Lino there’s a ‘mole’ in his operation!”
Lino’s too busy explaining his “I’m just playing THEIR game” villainy, feeding Gloria Mexican barbecue and always getting interrupted just as it seems as if he’s about to make a movie on Miss Poker Face.
“Miss Bala” — the title translates to “bullet,” as in “La Bala settles EVERYthing” — may be slicker than the Mexican film it’s based on, and for all its alleged complexity, it’s the B-movie conventions (tempting villain, a suspicious top lieutenant to the mobster who doesn’t trust Gloria, etc.) that hold it together.
Hardwicke loses track of those building blocks of the Bs at her own, and her movie’s peril. And she does. Characters disappear for long stretches, plotlines are abandoned and the finale we all see coming feels like a pulled punch.
A movie this illogical shouldn’t get hung up on whether Gloria is turned on by the bad guy giving her the eye. And a genre pic this conventional shouldn’t shy away from those conventions, when they’re the time-proven elements that work.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of gun violence, sexual and drug content, thematic material, and language
Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Anthony Mackie, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Cristina Rodlo
Credits: Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, script by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer. A Sony/Columbia Pictures release.
Running time: 1:44