It’s been difficult to take director Catherine Hardwicke seriously, as she’s built a filmography made up of misfires and mediocrity (“Twilight,” “Red Riding Hood,” “Miss You Already”), always finding her way into overkill, even with delicate material. Her aggressive style seems like a fine fit for “Miss Bala,” which is a remake of a 2011 Mexican thriller, giving the helmer a template for panic and scenes of intimidation, as the story covers kidnappings, across-the-border drug running, and acts of revenge. And yet, Hardwicke manages to turn it all into a mushy pile of cliches and noise, treating “Miss Bala” as her ticket into the Michael Bay School of Fetishistic Violence. Star Gina Rodriguez seems bewildered by it all, trying to keep up with Hardwicke’s excesses and limited interest in dramatic support, in need of a moviemaker with more patience and taste to successfully execute the unfolding nightmare presented here.
A native of California, make-up artist Gloria (Gina Rodriguez) is traveling into Mexico for the week, visiting her longtime pal Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) to support her effort as she vies for the crown in the Miss Baja beauty pageant. Joining Suzu for a party at a nightclub, Gloria’s simple visit to a bathroom turns into a life-changing situation, witnessing a dangerous cartel enter the building and shoot up the dance floor. Escaping the carnage, Gloria is left without Suzu, while her desperate pleas for help are answered by Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova), a cartel leader who kidnaps the terrified woman, returning to his base of operations with plans to turn her into a slave, threating unimaginable violence on her and loved ones if she doesn’t go through with their drug mule needs between Mexico and the U.S. Finding her way to the D.E.A., Gloria soon finds the good guys are just as corrupt as the cartel, also using her as a pawn to infiltrate the enemy, forcing the American to find ways to defend herself while trapped in a deadly situation.
The main issue with “Miss Bala” is that it looks and feels like a television pilot, entering a world where tales of cartel horrors are a dime a dozen on the small screen. Such competition should inspire Hardwicke to do something special for the production, but she’s not willing to make the effort, simply detailing a dull script by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, which tracks Gloria’s journey into doom, beginning with her fashion world ambitions, with the make-up artist striving to be seen and heard by industry leaders, only to be rudely dismissed. Surprisingly little is understood about Gloria beyond the basics of professional frustration and some family history, almost setting up the character for a multi-episode odyssey of development, watching as the understandably frightened young woman is hardened by her cartel experience, offered a grim view of enslavement, sexual assault, and mass murder. There should be a significant arc for Gloria that “Miss Bala” can examine, but that doesn’t arrive, leaving characterization empty all around.
Gloria is soon caught between volatile sides of border conflict, taken by the cartel for reprogramming, while her needs from the D.E.A. are not met, thrown to the wolves by the Americans, who have little interest in her personal protection. Violence is on the absurd side, with Gloria magically dodging bullets while Hardwicke serves up large, lovingly detailed explosions, endeavoring to make a mainstream actioner with material that’s more indie in nature, often imitating an intimate study of survival. In the helmer’s control, “Miss Bala” becomes ridiculous, not formidable, studying Gloria as she develops her particular set of skills with help from Lino, who decides to trust the Californian, teaching her how to shoot machine guns and deal with itchy cartel members who are understandably unsure about the new addition to the gang.
“Miss Bala” eventually heads toward a revenge scenario, with the pressure building around Gloria inspiring the woman to defend herself, dealing with the push and pull of cartel life and American Betrayal. Rodriguez masters a panicky presence (which Hardwicke loves to frame with her addiction to shaky-cam cinematography), but as a developing force of authority? She’s miscast, or at least ill-prepared to go where the story takes the character. “Miss Bala” is in need of stronger performers all around, and a screenplay that shows as much attention to psychological trials as it does to physical ones, with the feature eventually suffocated by its shallow approach, giving Hardwicke another dud in an inexplicable career. I'm going to give "Miss Bala" a 3 out of 10.