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'Miss Bala' a lackluster tale of illegal drug trade

Action-thriller set across U.S.-Mexico border is contrived attempt at melding drug-cartel drama with beauty pageant backdrop

Gina Rodríguez stars in "Miss Bala."

Gina Rodríguez stars in "Miss Bala." Photo Credit: Sony Pictures/Gregory Smith

PLOT An American woman is forced to work for a Mexican drug cartel.

CAST Gina Rodriguez, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Matt Lauria

RATED PG-13 (violence and some bloodshed)

LENGTH 1:44

BOTTOM LINE A passive heroine and a contrived plot put a damper on what could have been a crackling action-thriller.

Catherine Hardwicke’s “Miss Bala” arrives in theaters this weekend with excellent timing and plenty of promise. It’s an action-thriller, set against the illegal drug trade across the U.S.-Mexico border, with a nearly all-Hispanic cast, a female lead and a female director. For topicality, diversity, gender equality and just a plain old good time at the movies, “Miss Bala” would seem to check every box.

All except that last one. Despite its appealing star, Gina Rodriguez (The CW's “Jane the Virgin”) and its accomplished director (“Thirteen,” “Lords of Dogtown,” “Twilight”), “Miss Bala” is a classic example of the Lackluster January Release, with all the slack pacing, plot-contrivances and barely engaging characters that define the genre.

“Miss Bala” is a reworking of a 2011 Mexican film whose fanciful-sounding premise — a beauty queen who works for a drug cartel — was actually inspired by a news story. In this telling, our heroine, Gloria Fuentes (Rodriguez), is an American make-up artist; it’s her Mexican friend, Suzu (Cristina Rodlo), who is competing as Miss Baja California. (The off-balance script is by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer.) When armed thugs shoot up a pre-pageant party, Suzu goes missing and Gloria attempts to find her. Instead, Gloria winds up catching the eye of Lino, the handsome young leader of Tijuana's Las Estrellas cartel. He's played by a rather good Ismael Cruz Córdova, who brings a touch of Jean-Paul Belmondo romanticism to the role.

It takes a lot of coincidences to put Gloria in Lino's hands, and even more to put her on the radar of DEA agent Brian Reich (Matt Lauria), who forces her to become a double agent. The film's opening half-hour is basically a series of kidnappings and handcuffings as Gloria is transferred from plot-point to plot-point. Eventually we arrive at a semi-interesting semi-romance between Gloria and Lino, but “Miss Bala” is too timid to get very steamy or morally problematic. Convenient phone-calls and door-knocks repeatedly save Gloria's virtue.

Gloria is a disappointingly passive heroine, and Rodriguez never gets to do much but react (which often means weeping). When Gloria is forced to enter the beauty pageant herself – shades of “Miss Congeniality” – the film devolves into true silliness. “Bala” is Spanish for bullet, by the way, but “Miss Bala” promises much more aggression and empowerment than it delivers.

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