Turns out the title of Gerardo Naranjo's previous film, I'm Gonna Explode, was meant to prepare us for this kinetic stunner. Ostensibly an unflinching portrait of Mexico's brutal drug cartels, Miss Bala follows the increasingly nightmarish journey of Laura (Stephanie Sigman), an aspiring beauty queen gunning for Miss Baja. (The title is a bit of wordplay — bala is Spanish for bullet.) Laura hits the wrong club one night and winds up at the mercy of a psychotic drug lord (Noe Hernandez), to whom she's useful both as an errand girl and as a nonconsensual piece of ass.
Because Naranjo depicts Laura as a victim from start to finish, declining to provide much access to her consciousness (Sigman, who's previously worked mostly as a model, is asked only to project terror and the survival instinct), some have found the film troubling, if not actively repugnant. But it's no accident that Naranjo was inspired by a real-life incident involving a pageant contestant, nor that her tormentor takes such an active interest in her “career”; closing drug-war stats notwithstanding, what comes across most powerfully is the price demanded of an attractive woman in exchange for success. Even if you're not onboard with the corrosive feminist metaphor, though, you can still revel in the year's most thrilling action set pieces: Nearly every shot is a magnificently choreographed single-take tour de force that will have Michael Mann and Paul Greengrass taking notes.