Review: Miss Bala
Based on the Mexican film of the same name, Miss Bala stars Gina Rodriguez as Gloria, an American makeup artist in Los Angeles who visits her friend Suzi (Cristina Rodlo) down in Tijuana, Mexico. They go out to a local nightclub and they're immediately in the middle of a cartel gang war on the dance floor, as gun-wielding thugs try to assassinate a corrupt police chief. Gloria makes it out in one piece, but Suzi disappears, and it's up to Gloria to try and find her, while playing both sides of the law.
This remake, directed by Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown, Twilight), Americanizes its lead. No longer do we see the perspective of a Mexican woman witnessing the horror of gang violence poisoning her country. In this film, Gloria was raised partially in Mexico but she calls America home. Her identity as a Mexican-American plays into her character — she can speak Spanish, but always with a tinge of trepidation and everyone around her knows she doesn’t fit in. While trying to prove she's just as Mexican as they come, she's also trying to infiltrate a gang that might know where her friend is being kept. With that, Gloria becomes a double agent, working for the U.S. government. She's the interest of one gang leader, Lino (Ismael Cruz Córdova), who uses her to smuggle drugs and guns across the border, and also has a particular infatuation for the American. It's the most interesting theme running through the film — the duality of playing both sides, both culturally and otherwise, but it's only briefly expanded on. Instead with get a standard action-thriller, with intriguing, yet creepy, sexual tension between Gloria and Lino.
Hardwicke uses the camera to rightly objectify Lino's muscle-bound body and accentuate his blue, piercing eyes. The director understands the salacious nature of Gloria's predicament and while some of the moments, where Lino crosses Gloria's personal boundaries, are hard to watch, Lino is mostly a fleshed out three-dimensional villain. Tonally, it's drastic at times; Gloria and Lino enjoy some authentic Mexican food out in the countryside in one scene, and in the next he executes an innocent victim in cold blood. Miss Bala tries to go back and forth, between the life-and-death realistic struggle inside the cartels and the over-the-top tropes of the genre. There are obligatory kidnapping scenes, pushy DEA agents, a cell phone tracking chip switcheroo, and, of course, exploding vehicles amidst shootouts. No twist is entirely earned; not even the final one, which is as much a set up for a franchise than a fitting end. Even the one interesting hook, the based-on-a-true-story beauty pageant aspect that the original film built itself on is tacked on early and brought back hamfistedly only to serve the final act showdown.
Miss Bala's saving grace is Gina Rodriguez. This, along with last year’s Annihilation, proves that the Jane the Virgin star is capable of a diverse career, or at least they prove she's got ass-kicking skills. Rodriguez carries the film, easy sliding into the leading role and skirting between hapless civilian and serious action star. The film doesn’t rise to her heights and potential, though. There's enough well-structured action and intrigue to make for an enjoyable matinee, but with the potential to tackle issues like sexism, cultural rifts, and the perception of Mexican stereotypes, Miss Bala ultimately falls short.