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 favour 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 armour, the American threatens her with years in jail or much worse, unless she co-operates.
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.
"Miss Bala," a Sony Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America "for sequences of gun violence, sexual and drug content, thematic material, and language." Running time: 104 minutes. Two stars out of four.
MPAA definition of PG-13: Parental guidance strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13