If you’ve ever watched TV’s hugely entertaining “Jane the Virgin,” you’ll know that its star, Gina Rodriguez, is one of the most engaging, charismatic and relatable actresses out there.
It was only a matter of time before she headlined a big-studio movie — a truly welcome development. But Rodriguez and her fans deserve better than “Miss Bala,” a disappointingly bland and formulaic Hollywood remake of a much grittier and bleaker Mexican thriller.
No discredit to Rodriguez, of course, who remains genuine and appealing in scene after scene where her character, a Mexican-American makeup artist, is tasked with finding her way out of the most terrifying jams. And it’s undeniably satisfying, in one climactic scene, to watch her saunter in a satiny red, high-slit evening gown, settling scores with the villainous men around her.
But if you’re looking for a movie with something substantive to say about Mexico and drug wars and, well, anything but a PG-13 “You go, girl!” action film, you won’t find it here. Director Catherine Hardwicke (“Twilight”) does a fine enough job staging action sequences and keeping the pace; the script has far bigger issues, with lines that are often banal and achingly predictable.
We first meet Gloria (Rodriguez) in Los Angeles, where she has a backstage makeup job at Fashion Week. But she aspires to much more. Proposing her design ideas, she’s met with a snide retort from a male boss: “Honey, we’re not paying you to think.” Discouraged, she swipes some free makeup and heads down to visit her childhood best friend, Suzu, in Tijuana.
Their goal: securing a victory for Suzu in the local beauty pageant, which will lead to a better life for her and her young brother. After registering, the two women head out for an evening of networking at a swishy nightclub, where they hope to rub elbows with the pageant’s lecherous and corrupt patron.
But minutes after they arrive, a gaggle of gangsters intent on killing the patron force their way in — through the ladies room window! — and a huge shootout ensues. Suzu is kidnapped, and Gloria sets out on a desperate quest to find her. A corrupt police officer hands her right over to the gunmen, led by the menacingly handsome, blue-eyed Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova, a charismatic actor doing his best with a cardboard role).
Lino demands a favor in return for helping Gloria. As always here, declining an offer means death. This leads to her unwittingly bombing a DEA safehouse. When she manages to escape Lino’s clutches soon after, she falls directly into the hands of a DEA agent (Matt Lauria). Hardly a knight in shining armor, the American threatens her with years in jail or much worse, unless she cooperates.
Gloria is working secretly now for both sides. The Mexicans send her across the border, bundles of cash strapped to her torso, to pick up a cache of weapons. Upon her return she finds herself only further enmeshed in the deadly mess. Meanwhile, Suzu is nowhere to be found.
Besides Rodriguez and Cordova, nobody else has a huge amount of onscreen time; Anthony Mackie is underused. Mexican actress Aislinn Derbez makes an impression in a brief but tragic role.
It’s not giving anything away to say that we’ll eventually get to the beauty pageant — who doesn’t love a good beauty pageant scene? It’s also clear that Gloria will be forced to rise yet again to the occasion and show how tough she has become in just a few days.
This was not the point of the original movie, but it works well for Rodriguez’s winning persona. Watch it for her; for more substance, you might want to check out the original.