‘Miss Bala’ misses the mark
By: Matt Brunson
A remake of a 2011 Mexican movie that only played film festivals stateside, Miss Bala (two out of four stars) 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 U.S.-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.
Just how absolutely ludicrous is the big twist in the new thriller Serenity (one out of four stars)? It’s so head-smackingly stupid that I had to check the credits to see if M. Night Shyamalan was listed anywhere. Instead, the culprit is Steven Knight, a gifted scripter responsible for such original efforts as Dirty Pretty Things (for which he earned an Oscar nomination), Eastern Promises and Locke.
It’s one thing to think outside the box; it’s another to deliberate beneath the barrel. Serving as both writer and director, Knight has come up with a movie whose originality is thoroughly obliterated by its idiocy. It starts out in familiar neo-noir fashion, as Matthew McConaughey plays a fishing boat captain who’s asked by his ex-wife (a bored Anne Hathaway) to murder her abusive husband (Jason Clarke) for $10 million. As he contemplates whether to execute the dirty deed, he’s advised by his conscientious best friend (Djimon Hounsou) and pursued by a strange businessman (Jeremy Strong) sporting a briefcase.
Were I a kinder man, I would just go ahead and offer a spoiler and save everyone valuable time and money. But since the critics’ code prevents blatant reveals, let’s just say the movie doesn’t have as much in common with a neo-noir as it does with Neo, the protagonist in that highly popular and influential trilogy starring Keanu Reeves. The plot pirouette effectively neutralizes any emotions we might be feeling toward any of these characters, and it leads to a final half-hour that’s as daft as anything found in an Ed Wood turkey. Indeed, about the only thing missing is a shot of McConaughey bellowing “Pull the string!” while a herd of buffalo — or, in this case, a school of tuna — parade across the screen.