A frantic young woman ducks the sudden hail of gunfire, the camera following her every move. The sound of broken glass and screams fog the air as the acrobatic lead hits the ground, rolls to a stop and regains her composure. With nary a cut, the suspense derives from a precise combination of speed, naturalism and extreme physicality.
This is the core cinematic engine of two movies with entirely different aims: "Miss Bala," a persistently unnerving tale of the Mexican underworld from Gerardo Naranjo, and "Haywire," Steven Soderbergh's zippy espionage thriller. But since they both deploy the same fundamental approach, their concurrent releases nicely demonstrate how the language of the medium specifically relates to the ideas behind it. Everything that terrifies in "Miss Bala" amuses in "Haywire," and yet in purely visual terms, they're nearly twins.
In "Miss Bala," the impoverished young Laura (Stephanie Sigman) dreams of landing a beauty-queen title and inadvertently becomes a pawn in the scheme of a northern Mexican drug lord. She gets her title, but at the price of subservience to menacing criminal Lino (Noe Hernandez), who captures Laura after she survives a nightclub attack. Going to the authorities leads her straight into the path of Lino, who guarantees her victory while also forcing her into the role of errand girl — among other, more frightening tasks. From start to finish, "Miss Bala" is a powerfully uneasy experience. Laura dodges car crashes and bullet storms along with innumerable criminals, all men, who treat her like a chew toy.
But while "Miss Bala" depicts a fragile woman constantly abused and never more cunning than the forces around her, her persistent survival imbues the movie with a clarity of intent. Naranjo's camera rarely puts emphasis on the source of the violence. Instead, Sigman's terrified gaze turns into our own. The camera rarely leaves her face, fixating on her fear. She's the physical embodiment of an innocent Mexico desperate to survive another day.
Mallory Kane, the nimble heroine of "Haywire," also struggles to stay alive, but she's always the most capable person in the frame. Portrayed by Women's Mixed Martial Arts star Gina Carano, covert operative Mallory faces a nasty double-crossing that finds her on the lam and eager to take down the men responsible. She knows how to wield a gun, but does even better with her fists.
Featuring some of the best onscreen hand-to-hand combat since "The Bourne Ultimatum," Soderbergh's relentless technique foregrounds Carano's skill over the perfunctory narrative, which contains plenty of shadowy conspiracies rendered irrelevant by a payoff that mainly involves well-timed punches and kicks set to David Holmes' brassy Bond-like score. Pummeling forward from its first diner-set fight scene to a sweeping final showdown on the beach, "Haywire" is a literal blast.
But its gender politics are a serious concern. Much as "Miss Bala" positions Laura as a focus of male abuse, "Haywire" pits Mallory against a world exclusively composed of men. That's where the importance of the unflinching shooting technique comes in: The majority of shots throughout the movie either show Mallory entirely alone or in the grips of a male attacker (and, in one case, in a lovers' embrace). Soderbergh avoids wide shots to bring us close to action that doesn't need context to thrill. It's a woman kicking ass in a man's world, the upbeat fantasy alternative to the grim realism of "Miss Bala."
In each tense moment, "Miss Bala" has a lot to say in a few words; conversely, "Haywire" has little to say but plenty to show off. With only slight fluctuations, the camera serves radically different purposes, proving that context is in the eye of the beholder, even when that beholder is a machine.
"Miss Bala": A-
HOW WILL THEY PLAY? Opening in New York and L.A. this weekend ahead of a wider release, "Miss Bala" arrives in U.S. theaters courtesy of 20th Century Fox after the film played to great acclaim on the festival circuit, starting with Cannes. The Mexican submission for the Academy Award, "Miss Bala" has a real chance at landing a nomination and performing well in limited release, benefiting from its appeal to fans of action, Latino communities and others interested in the Mexican drug war.
Relativity Media opens "Haywire" on Friday. The movie is bound to see strong returns on opening weekend since it delivers on the promise of action fun and sports a killer trailer to that effect.