miss bala review

To say Gina Rodriguez was born to be an action star would be a misnomer. Up until last year, Rodriguez was best known as the star of the satirical CW comedy Jane the Virgin, winning a Golden Globe for her infinitely charming performance as the plucky title character. But an action star is what Rodriguez seems destined to be, and that’s all right by me. The actress has taken to the character type like it was second nature, impressing last year as a gruff and damaged paramedic in Annihilation. It was the birth of an action star and Rodriguez has smartly doubled down on that to make her proper action movie debut with Miss Bala. However, while Rodriguez unsurprisingly gives a gripping performance in the lead role, the drug cartel crime thriller surrounding her doesn’t do her any favors.

Directed by Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight) from a script by Gareth Dunnett-AlcocerMiss Bala is an English-language remake of the 2011 Mexican film of the same name. The relentlessly taut Mexican film in turn was loosely inspired by a real incident in which 2008’s Miss Sinaloa, Laura Zúniga, was arrested with suspected gang members in a truck filled with munitions outside Guadalajara, Jalisco. But as seems to be the trend these days, the 2019 Miss Bala remake turns a real-life, morally gray situation into a superhero origin movie.

The film follows Gloria Meyer (Rodriguez), a make-up artist from Los Angeles who visits her best friend Suzu, an aspiring pageant queen in Tijuana, Mexico. But when the pair go to a nightclub to rub shoulders with the pageant bigwigs, they’re caught in the middle of a bloody shoot-out between a drug cartel and the DEA, resulting in Suzu disappearing and Gloria getting kidnapped by the cartel after she witnesses them break into the club. Forced to smuggle laundered money for the cartel after they threaten her friend’s brother, Gloria is roped in by the DEA to be a double agent, and must carefully navigate her life-or-death situation while searching for her lost friend.

Miss Bala is strangely devoid of politics despite its setting and premise. The film neither absolves nor condemns the drug cartel, despite the bodies that pile up in their wake, nor does it take to task the corrupt government that allows the cartel to thrive. Similarly, Miss Bala treats the DEA rather unforgivingly as well — all of them simply obstacles for Gloria to overcome in her journey to becoming a badass superhero. Even some of its darkest moments — the nightclub shooting in particular becomes unintentionally horrifying when taken in a modern-day context — but the film doesn’t linger on the implications, instead choosing to barrel through a plot that seems to make as little sense to the director as it does to the audience.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that Taken-inspired B-movie approach — if Hardwicke doesn’t want to explore complicated topics way out of her depth, then perhaps Miss Bala is better for it. But it’s the way that Miss Bala trades substance for soap and sits uncomfortably at the edge of sexual politics that makes Miss Bala so infuriating.

There’s an uncomfortable tension between Gloria and the drug cartel leader Lino (Ismael Cruz Córdova), whose movie-star good looks and sympathetic backstory threatens to turn Miss Bala into a sordid romance. But this soapy element is more puzzling than sensual. The film never quite goes there, but it almost turns Gloria’s conflict into a tragic romance, which undercuts the message of female empowerment that the film seems to be trying (and failing) to relay.

If not for Rodriguez’s electric performance, Gloria would be a mess of a character. Alternately a relatable girl-next-door and an obscenely competent superhero, Gloria’s arc toward becoming the badass “Miss Bala” that the film is setting up is artificial at best. Her one driving motivator — finding her friend — gets muddled by the film’s insistence on upping the romantic tension between her and Lino, and introducing the nonsensical throughline of the pageant. Despite taking its name from a pageant (though the twist is “Bala” means “bullet”), the “Miss Baja California” competition is mostly an afterthought. That’s the inherent problem in making Gloria a make-up artist and best friend of a pageant princess, to give her that dreaded “relatable” label. For much of the first half of the film, Gloria endures underhanded comments about her plain-Jane looks — something that is clearly untrue when you simply look at Rodriguez, and especially rings false when Lino becomes unduly obsessed with her.

Hardwicke directs the hell out of this movie and elevates it temporarily from its B-movie nature, but a good director for an inherently flawed script can only do so much. Rodriguez is underserved in a film that wants to be a superhero movie but ends up an insulting and incompetent B-movie.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10

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