Movie Review: “Miss Bala” (2019)

Ostensibly, the Gina Rodriguez starring “Miss Bala” offers a great lead role for the actress, one with a strong female character in the middle of everything.  This is a movie about a makeup artist, Gloria (Rodriguez), finding herself caught between the police and drug dealers in Tijuana, making her way to safety, and rescuing a friend as she does so.  While this does happen, the vast majority of the movie does not find Gloria with any sort of agency.  She regularly has choices thrust upon her rather than the ability to act of her own free will.  It undercuts the character and in doing so hurts the film.

Directed by Catherine Hardwicke and with a screenplay by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, “Miss Bala” is based on a Spanish-language title of the same name, with “bala” translating to “bullet.”  Certainly this works within the context of the story as Gloria is the bullet which others shoot (this may not be the intended meaning, but it certainly is the operational one).

Those moments where Gloria does make choices, where we get to see her work within the limited scope of options she has—such as when she finds herself pinned between a DEA agent, Brian Reich (Matt Lauria), and members of the Estella drug cartel, led by Lino (Ismael Cruz Córdova)—are outstanding.  Here, Gloria comes into her own and the movie does as well.

When Gloria gets to decide whether she will be a willing drug/gun mule in order to try to save her missing friend, Suzu (Cristina Rodlo), “Miss Bala” really does excel.  The thoughts and fears and hopes play out across Rodriguez’s face and the audience is drawn into the proceedings.

When, however, Gloria is forced from place-to-place by others, or finds herself within a ridiculous set of coincidences—like simply being caught by the DEA agents in the first place—the film fails.  At these points it is as though we are simply watching a marionette perform actions someone else dictates.

To make matters worse, Gloria is the only three-dimensional character the film offers.  Lino is a ruthless drug dealer who might have a soft side, but it is never once believable that he wouldn’t kill anyone and everyone if they have the possibility of getting in his way.  The various government agents Gloria runs into are equally bland – they are men willing to ado anything to capture a criminal even if it means harming innocents.  Although these traits do equate with nefariousness, within the scope of the film they only mean offering the viewer more of the same.

Because the characters are so flat, the movie is able to offer up more than one twist as the end draws near, as well as proved shifting allegiances between people and groups (or at the very least, the perception that allegiances are shifting) throughout. Some of these elements can be easily guessed at, but the ones that can’t are obtuse because the audience has no insight into the characters revealing them.  Absolutely everyone in the movie could be lying about who they are and we simply don’t have enough information about them to judge the twist.

On top of all of this, the end of the movie sets things up for a far more interesting sequel, a movie where Gloria actually gets to make decisions throughout rather than be forced into them by others.  It, in other words, promises to be the movie that “Miss Bala” ought to have been.

There are, however, some ways in which the movie succeeds.  Chiefly, it does a wonderful job putting the viewer into Gloria’s shoes at the outset of the movie and as things begin to go bad for her.    Throughout the movie, Gloria and many other characters shift back and forth between English and Spanish in a way that feels accurate without ever leaving the non-Spanish speaking viewer behind.

It is easy to see why someone would have wanted to adapt the original film for the U.S. market, and why Rodriguez would be interested in the role.  The end results, however, are disappointing.

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photo credit:  Sony Pictures Entertainment

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