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‘Miss Bala’ mostly misfires

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By now, we’ve grown accustomed to unconventional action movie leads. The past decade-plus has illustrated that action heroes are no longer one-size-fits-all. So I wasn’t all that surprised to see that Gina Rodriguez was getting a swing at heading up her own shoot-em-up.

Sure, Rodriguez is best known as the titular Jane in TV’s “Jane the Virgin,” but she has shown flashes of action aptitude in movies like “Annihilation.” It makes sense that she’d get a shot. It’s just too bad that said shot wildly misses the target.

“Miss Bala” – a remake of the 2011 Mexican film of the same name – is a story of a woman who gets swept up into a fight that she had nothing to with, a battle between cartels and corrupt police and unfeeling governments. Forced into the middle of a war she never wanted to fight, she has no choice but to do whatever it takes to survive.

Unfortunately, while the movie has a striking look and a handful of genuinely engaging sequences, the vast majority of the narrative is confusing and convoluted. Subplots are introduced and discarded at seeming random, with little consistency regarding what should be considered important. It is chaotic and melodramatic, a feature-length telenovela with explosions (not a compliment, though I can see how it might read as one).

Rodriguez stars as Gloria, a makeup artist living in Los Angeles trying to find ways to advance her career. She heads to Tijuana at the behest of her childhood friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo, TV’s “Too Old to Die Young”), who lives there with her little brother. Suzu is looking for a makeover in advance of her entrance into the Miss Baja California beauty pageant.

At a pre-pageant event at a club, Gloria inadvertently stumbles into the midst of an assassination plot aimed at Chief Saucedo (Damian Alcazar, TV’s “Narcos”), who is both the head of the police and the primary backer of the pageant. Separated from Suzu, she approaches the wrong police officer and winds up delivered into the hands of Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova, “Mary Queen of Scots”), leader of one of the major cartels.

Desperate to protect her friends and save herself, Gloria agrees to whatever terms Lino demands. Thus, she winds up involved with ever-escalating criminal activities – activities that she barely manages to navigate. Along the way, she repeatedly stumbles into the eyelines of other players in the game, everything from rival dealers to drug enforcement agents.

Ultimately, Gloria realizes that there’s no one she can trust. If she’s going to save Suzu, she’s going to have to do it herself.

“Miss Bala” is 10 kilos of narrative in a five-kilo bag; there’s far too much story for the film’s modest 106 minutes. It tries to do so much that it accomplishes next to nothing, managing to feel endless as layer upon layer is slathered onto the story. The result is essentially a darkest-timeline “Miss Congeniality.”

That descriptor might sound fun to you. You wouldn’t be wrong – director Catherine Hardwicke effectively executes a number of quality action set pieces. She’s got a nice eye for the kinetic – hard to believe her helming of “Twilight” was over a decade ago now. And there are a handful of moments that are entertaining if for no other reason than their fundamental head-shaking absurdity. It’s a pretty good-looking movie.

And Gina Rodriguez is 100 percent capable of being a legitimate action movie lead. She’s a strong, gifted actor willing to commit fully to the explosion-filled lunacy of the genre. Her combination of talents oozes potential – so much so that you wish she’d landed in a better vehicle. Much of the film’s success springs from her charisma; she pulls the audience along through sheer presence and force of will. It’s a great performance that smooths over many of the film’s flaws.

The supporting cast is uneven. Cordova is oddly flat as Lino; he’s hitting all the marks of the cold-hearted, hot-blooded cartel boss, but it never really resonates. Rodlo is OK, but we don’t see a lot of her. Ditto Alcazar, who’s a pretty good caricature of a grossly corrupt top cop. Ricardo Abarca is convincingly unhinged as Lino’s top lieutenant Poyo. Oh, and Anthony Mackie is here for some reason – he’s in two scenes and comes off as someone who is here as a favor to someone.

All in all, there are some things to like about this movie. Unfortunately, those high points aren’t quite able to overcome the glaring narrative issues.

While I can’t in good conscience tell you that “Miss Bala” is a good movie, I also can’t deny that the entertainment value is significant. If you’re in the market for coherent, logical narrative, then you really ought to look elsewhere. However, if you’re seeking a weird, bloody feature-length episode of a Mexican soap opera, then you probably ought to give this movie a shot.

[2 out of 5]

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