Cartel drug runners come in all shapes and sizes, as evidence by the recent Clint Eastwood vehicle “The Mule” and Gina Rodriguez’s new adventure “Miss Bala.” As makeup artist turned cartel accomplice Gloria Fuentes, Rodriguez is less grizzled than Eastwood but just as laden with gravitas and grimaces.
The film begins with about three minutes of good times, as Gloria drives from Los Angeles to Tijuana and meets up with her girlhood friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo), an aspiring participant in the Miss Baja California pageant.
Their night out at a club quickly goes south when AR-15 fire strafes the dancefloor. Gloria loses Suzu and, while attempting to make a missing persons claim to a man she thinks is a police officer, finds herself kidnapped.
She is brought before Las Estrellas cartel leader Lino Esparza (Ismael Cruz Córdova), whose violent tendencies are softened by the prettiest green eyes this side of a Tapatío bottle.
Gloria runs for it and is captured again, this time by obnoxious DEA agent Brian (Matt Lauria). Unwilling to help her find Suzu, and leveraging jail time for consorting with Lino, Brian demands that Gloria lure the Estrellas into a bullring for a gunfight.
As the old saying goes, when you’re forced to make a choice between two exploitative men who only want to control you and don’t care if you live or die, always choose the better looking one.
Gloria rolls with Lino and Las Estrellas, including sadistic aide-de-camp Pollo (Ricardo Abarca), a man always being strangled by the skeleton hand tattoos on his neck. It turns out Lino, like Gloria, grew up in the States, on the streets of Bakersfield, and is not quite accepted by Pollo and the cartel posse — he’s “too gringo to be Mexican.”
We’re on the edge of a queasy romance — Lino even takes Gloria out for barbacoa tacos, spewing the usual, “You’re going to be my queen,” nonsense. It’s an especially gross sentiment when he’s surrounded by women forced into sexual slavery, like the doomed Isabel (Aislinn Derbez) and, Gloria expects, her friend Suzu.
The mild-mannered Lino is indifferent to carrying out executions but deeply upset by a small kitchen fire — “The pozole was ruined!” This feels like the most accurate burst of emotion in the film, as a good hominy stew really hits the spot after a long day of hunting for DEA safe houses.
When it comes time for Gloria to participate in the Miss Baja contest, we’re treated to some of the most amusing mansplaining captured in recent cinema. Lino bafflingly decides to take on the role of pageant coach, instructing her to believe in herself, be strong, etc.
Despite the semi-ludicrous nature of the plot, you have to admire Rodriguez, whose face is perfect for the role. Her beauty is most often oriented into a frown, a glower or a scowl.
The film is a remake of the 2001 Spanish-language “Miss Bala” and credit to whomever thought it might be a good idea for the update to be directed by a woman.
Mirroring the persistent underestimation of women in the film, director Catherine Hardwicke has seen only sporadic work since her early critical success with “Thirteen” and the box office triumph of “Twilight.” Here she makes a canny picture that delivers truths on the constant predation of men, from Lino the DEA agent to the sleazy pageant director who picks the winner only after they promise to go to bed with him.
‘Miss Bala’ is showing at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas. Rated R. Running time 1:44. Visit www.cinemawest.com.