[Screen It]


(2019) (Gina Rodriguez, Ismael Cruz Cordova) (PG-13)

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Dramatic Thriller: An American make-up artist ends up working for both the DEA and a Mexican drug lord when visiting her beauty pageant contestant friend in Tijuana.
Gloria Meyer (GINA RODRIGUEZ) is a makeup artist who travels from Los Angeles to Tijuana to support her friend, Suzu Ramos (CRISTINA RODLO), who's a contestant in the upcoming Miss Baja California pageant. But while visiting a night club there, the two are shocked when drug cartel boss Lino Esparza (ISMAEL CRUZ CORDOVA) and his goons, including his right-hand man, Poyo (RICARDO ABARCA), raid the place and attempt to assassinate the chief of police. They're unsuccessful, but Suzu ends up missing in the confusion of the gun battle and when Gloria tells a police officer that she saw who was responsible, he delivers her to Lino's goons.

Threatened with violence that will be aimed toward her, Suzu and that woman's younger brother if she doesn't comply, Gloria agrees to a number of demands imposed by Lino. That includes driving a car that will be used, unbeknownst to her, as a bomb to destroy a DEA safe house. When she manages to escape from Poyo, she ends up being captured by the DEA and is given an ultimatum by the agency's local team leader, Brian Reich (MATT LAURIA). And that is to plant a tracking device in Lino's phone or face decades of prison time for being involved in the bombing.

She reluctantly agrees, returns to Lino and carries out more assignments, such as smuggling cash and drugs across the border into San Diego for a man there, Jimmy (ANTHONY MACKIE), and returning with a small arsenal of weapons. As she continues balancing these two new sides of her life, Gloria begins wondering who actually has her best interests in mind, all while hoping to find her friend.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Now that they've removed the swimsuit judging element from various beauty pageants, the producers of such events are likely searching for some sort of tantalizing replacement feature. I'm guessing all sorts of ideas have been proposed and bandied about, but how about the following?

Each contestant is put into a life or death sort of predicament and how they respond -- and survive -- either adds to or is deducted from their total show score. They could even call it the Swimming With Sharks portion of the program, although it wouldn't be limited to the deep blue sea. What if, for instance, such a contestant is kidnapped by a Mexican drug cartel and forced to make runs for them, all while also but separately being controlled by the DEA who gives them a "do this or go to jail" assignment?

Sound absurd? Well, of course it is, but that's kinda, sorta what happens in "Miss Bala," an English-language remake of the 2011 Mexican film of the same name (that I have not seen, so there won't be any comparisons to the source material). Okay...that's not part of the Miss Baja California pageant that serves as the catalyst for all that follows, and it's not an actual contestant who gets caught up in such a predicament.

Instead, it's a makeup artist (Gina Rodriguez) who travels to Tijuana to help her friend (Cristina Rodlo) prepare for the pageant, only to find herself caught in the middle of a night club gun battle. That's followed by a drug cartel kidnapping her and its leader (Ismael Cruz Cordova) giving her assignments lest harm come to her, her friend and that woman's younger brother. Not long after that, she's picked up by the DEA under suspicion of being in cahoots with those criminals and thus is given the ultimatum to work with them or go to prison for a long time.

The twist, or at least the beginning of such a plot development, is that our young heroine might just be falling prey to the old Stockholm Syndrome of falling for her captor, especially in light of how expendable the DEA has apparently deemed her to be (as personified by the agent played by Matt Lauria). The fun with that, if you will, could have been keeping the viewer on their toes in terms of that being real (and thus an interesting character arc) or if she would be simply playing the cartel leader and/or the DEA to get what she wants and needs to find her friend.

Alas, screenwriter Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer -- in adapting and apparently modifying the story elements from the first film (based on what I've read) -- doesn't delve deeply enough into that to turn what's otherwise a fairly unremarkable film into something far more interesting and engaging. Director Catherine Hardwicke delivers some decent scenes and sequences now and then, but ultimately lets the third act turn sloppy as the pageant finally arrives and the big violent showdown rounds the corner.

Rodriguez is okay as the protagonist and gets us to care somewhat about her character that we don't lose total interest as things play out. And Cordova is credible enough as the villain. Even so, this is another of those films that -- despite it being just a few days since I saw it -- is already quickly evaporating from my memory. I imagine it will probably similarly do something of the same thing during its theatrical run.

Had they gone they full-on beauty pageant meets "Hunger Games" plot thrust, that might have been one thing. As it stands, it only serves to remind viewers of far better drug cartel-related movies such as "Sicario." Not interesting or engaging enough to come in as the first place runner-up, "Miss Bala" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed January 28, 2019 / Posted February 1, 2019

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