Miss Bala is based on the Spanish-language film of the same name, as the opening credits advertise. I can’t speak for the quality of the original, but it seemed to warrant an American remake starring Gina Rodriguez, star of Jane the Virgin, who has wanted — and can carry — a breakout movie. Rodriguez is just about the only one here who shines. I’d say take it or leave it, but let’s go with leave it. Despite clear effort at its center, Miss Bala is dead in the water.
Rodriguez stars as Gloria Fuentes, a “normal girl” who becomes embroiled in a cross-border conflict involving a local gang led by Lino Esparza (Ismael Cruz Córdova) and the DEA. Esparza kidnaps Gloria after he and her friend Isabel (Aislinn Derbez) are caught in the crossfire of a nightclub shooting planned by Esparza as an assassination attempt on the local police chief.
There’s something in there about Gloria helping Isabel compete in the local Miss Baja beauty pageant, a subplot that reoccurs more or less at random as the plot plods along. Most of the movie is about Gloria surviving her stay with Esparza, who tries to morph her into an assassin for his group by promising to find Isabel, who disappeared after the shooting.
The contours of a psychological “will she break bad” thriller are somewhere in the script as it moves through the motions of humanizing Esparza and vilifying the DEA, which refuses to help or believe Gloria’s predicament. But the DEA is mostly absent, leaving us with Esparza, whose humanization never really makes sense because he’s simply the only other major character in the entire film and very, very clearly an antagonist. What’s more, Gloria is mostly passive throughout the film. Her few attempts at escape are the only pulse-raising moments in the movie but they’re few and far between. She survives, and mostly gets other people killed in the process. “You’re a survivor,” she’s told at the end, in case we didn’t get it.
She fires two bullets in the entire movie. So? There’s no requirement to make Gloria an action hero with a handgun and a hot dress, and the movie certainly defies the trope used to market it in every way possible. Maybe there’s room to complain about false advertising, but the film clearly wants to be something different — the story of a woman using her resourcefulness and wit to rise to the situation that entraps her. But Gloria never really does that. And worse, her stakes are entirely defined by the mistreatment of nameless women around her. She’s never raped or beaten, but other women around her are (without receiving any characterization outside of their suffering). She’s never even asked to truly compromise her morals to accomplish an objective. When she indirectly causes the death of another woman, her victim basically tells her they’re ready to die (see my previous point, but also the lack of other women characters), and it’s a mistake from which she quickly recovers.
It’s a psychological thriller without an internal psychology.
Sicario came to mind frequently. It’s a clear influence on director Catherine Hardwicke (Twlight, Red Riding Hood, Lords of Dogtown). And at the start of the movie, I started to feel like it was a better follow-up to that movie than the actual sequel, one of last year’s worst movies. In Sicario, Emily Blunt played a cop trapped between ever-escalating tensions along the border exacerbated by the violence of men. Taylor Sheridan’s script for that film never knows what to actually convey with her, using her womanhood as a shortcut for talking about gruff men. The script for his sequel jettisoned her altogether because he’s essentially incapable of writing women. So I was hoping Miss Bala, in lifting the aesthetic, would try to convey something more ground-level about the ways women are victimized and rise to their own defense in this kind of situation.
No such luck. Ah, well.