It’ll be nice when the day finally comes where Latinx stories told on the big screen can be more than drug and gang wars going down at the border, but it is not this day. Last year’s Roma showed us just how personal and relatable stories set in Mexico and about Mexican people can be, but that same year also gave us offensive, fear-mongering garbage like Peppermint. Miss Bala, a sanitized, American remake of a 2011 Mexican film of the same name, falls somewhere in the middle of the road. It manages to mostly avoid having its villainous Mexican gang members be racist caricatures (hooray for the bare minimum!), but the themes and ideas it attempts to put forth about the subject matter feel very half-baked and don’t lead to anything satisfying.
Gloria (Gina Rodriguez) is a makeup artist from Los Angeles who travels down to Tijuana to spend time with her friend, Suzu (Cristina Rodlo), and help her prepare for the upcoming Miss Baja California beauty pageant. The two friends head to a club to spend the night dancing, but a shooting suddenly breaks out, separating them and leading Gloria to be kidnapped by a gang called Las Estrellas. Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova), the leader of the gang, forces Gloria to assist them in their criminal activities, which catches the attention of the DEA, and Gloria ends up having to play both sides in a desperate fight to stay alive.
What Miss Bala has going for it is the fact that it’s a film about female empowerment. It stars a woman of color (albeit one who’s come under continuous fire for comments that many have deemed to be anti-Black), was directed by a woman, Catherine Harwicke (Twilight, Lords of Dogtown), and is a woman-centric, Latinx-repping narrative. Marketing for the film has shown Gloria as a gun-toting, confident badass, and a synopsis describes her surviving by using “all of her cunning, inventiveness, and strength”. Unfortunately, Miss Bala fails to live up to any of these promises.
Despite an exceptional performance from Rodriguez, Gloria is an uninteresting and terribly passive protagonist. We learn next to nothing about her and her life, and she rarely ever drives the events of the story. Instead, she’s literally shoved and dragged from one thing to the next, never able to take matters into her own hands until the last few minutes of the movie. Her badassery is incredibly short-lived and relegated to her firing off only a couple of shots, and in its final moments the film reveals itself to apparently be saving Gloria’s heroism for a shoehorned-in sequel. Her only motivation, to find and save her friend, is admirable enough, but she’s stuck for almost the entire film being forced into situations she doesn’t want to be in but can’t do anything about, and her inability to save herself, while not her fault, gets old and boring fast.
There are just too many things in Miss Bala that never pan out, and all the things it wants to be about and comment on never lead to anything in particular. The film attempts to flesh out its main villain but it never goes anywhere, there’s commentary about navigating life back and forth on the border and not being white enough to be white but also not being Latinx enough to be Latinx, but that too, just appears to be a couple of lines of dialogue and nothing more. The smuggling of drugs, money, and weapons across the border are thankfully shown to occur at the legal points of entry rather than showing people sneaking across rivers and fields in the dead of night, painting the reality that these kind of crimes can’t be solved by something as medieval as a wall. But the cause and complexities of these illegal activities, as well as how they clash with authorities, aren’t ever really touched on, and the motivations of the film’s villains are extremely vague.
There’s a welcome sense of female camaraderie throughout the film – all of the men (even the whites ones, thank god) are violent, evil rapists and murderers while all of the women continuously share meaningful glances with one another, as if signaling the same kind of angry resignation of having to live in the hell of a male-dominated world. It never feels like enough though, either in the women finally taking charge or the representation of how far the evils of men go. It could be that the PG-13 rating holds it back (a sex-trafficking victim never even says the word sex, describing her ordeal as simply “they made me do things”), but the female empowerment angle, just like all of Miss Bala’s other aspects, just never seems to amount to much. Gloria never gets a chance to show how smart she may be (“We don’t pay you to think” her boss tells her at the start of the film), and her last minute turn into a brave heroine is more of a gut reaction to a new revelation in the story rather than a satisfying end to a character arc.
The film also has an uncomfortable gun fetish. The title literally translates to “Miss Bullet”, and the tag line, spoken by gang leader Lino, is “la bala solves everything”. That’s a pretty gross way of viewing the world and an unhealthy way of solving one’s problems, and on top of that, there’s an awkwardly placed scene where the film explains in detail how to properly operate an AR-15, the weapon of mass carnage that’s the preferred choice for American mass shooters. It’s in poor taste – in an age where mass shootings bring tremendous devastation and loss of life on an almost daily basis now, glorifying the very weapon that brings all of it about and the violence itself is irresponsible, to say the least.
The pieces are there for a thoughtful and thrilling crime drama, but they never come together to form a whole. Things just continuously happen to Gloria rather than Gloria making things happen, and by the time she does, it’s both too late and too little. So while Miss Bala manages to be progressive-minded in some respects, at the end of the day it limps by as a barely passable action flick. And that, compared to what the movie wants to live up to and be about, just isn’t good enough.
2.5 / 5 Stars
Miss Bala is now playing in theaters everywhere.