REVIEW: ‘Miss Bala’ Misses its Target

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Miss Bala - But Why Tho?

Miss Bala is a 2019 action-thriller directed by Catherine Hardwicke and starring Gina Rodriguez, Ismael Cruz Cordova, and Anthony MackieMatt Lauria, and Aislinn Derbez. The story follows LA make-up artist Gloria Fuentes as her world is turned upside down after visiting Tijuana to help her friend Suzu in the Miss Baja California Pageant. After a shooting at a night club leaves the two separated and Gloria abducted by Estrellas’ cartel, she starts a quest to find Suzu, protect her godson, and ultimately find her own identity.

Now, I don’t like the cartel sub-genre that has been forming with the success of Netflix’s Narcos, especially given the harmful criminalization of Latinos currently happening in our country. That being said, I give credit where credit is due. For example, Narcos: Mexico was solidly one of the best shows of 2018 even if I don’t care for the sub-genre. Unfortunately, there isn’t much credit due here.

Although Hardwicke attempts to explore complex identity issues that Latinx Americans face daily, being too gringa for their Latin communities but too brown for the United States, it doesn’t really land. The word pocha, a pejorative that Mexicans use to bring down Chicanos (Mexican-Americans) and those who have left Mexico, is a strong word for some, especially those of us who have never been accepted in the two worlds we inhabit. However, the way it’s used in the movie is bland, and Gloria’s lack of emotion to being called it shows an actor and a director who don’t understand that word’s meaning among Chicanos.

It honestly just feels like everyone is being mean to Gloria, which they are, but without self-reflexivity you don’t know that this is an issue of identity. In fact, if you don’t understand the struggle of living in this liminal space going in or the weight of the words, it’s just kidnappers being mean to the kidnapped. Seeing the marketing behind the movie put this issue of identity at the forefront is misleading and insincere.

During the Austin Film Society (AFS) screening of the movie with Live Q&A, which I attended, Hardwicke tried to explain how growing up in McAllen, TX – a border town – influenced her take on identity. As a Chicana who lives this identity, I found it more of a generic afterthought than a commentary that was purposefully trying to be made. Without Gloria exploring this, rather than just letting it be said, it feels empty. Although she exclaims that she is an American, she never once states that she is Mexican.

The film attempts to show nuance in the cartel violence. According to what Hardwicke said during the AFS Q&A, this was a layered depiction of the circumstances. American guns are used, Americans want the drugs being smuggled, and the DEA agents don’t care about Gloria. But these things are never highlighted like the violence shown in Tijuana, which I understand given the reality many people face living there.

That being said, in the original Mexican movie that it’s based on, Miss Bala (2011), the violence and the harm is shown as affecting individuals, and the Mexican director/writer, Gerardo Naranjo, shows it from his lens a Mexican man who knows the violence. This has been dismissed by Hardwicke and Rodriguez as Naranjo only writing a passive woman without agency, instead of him showcasing the reality of the crisis.

While this iteration of the same film does more to put Gloria as an active force fighting against the violence and as Hardwicke said in the Q&A, make her a “badass,” given her positionality, it may not be the best to do this as you lose any storytelling by turning her into a gun-toting action star. Now, I could forgive this had they made Gloria a force of nature, someone who is a badass and leaned into the ridiculous action genre, but the movie just stays in the middle.

As Hardwicke stated at the AFS, as a character, she wanted Gloria to only do things that Gina, the actress was capable of in order to keep her grounded and real. So, the truth of it is that the film doesn’t give action-flick level fight scenes that make up for lack of story. This is even more apparent since the trailer for the film makes it out to be a high-octane ride on la bala but it’s really just a sputtering pellet.

To its credit though, the film crew is almost all from Tijuana or Mexico City. The majority of the main cast in Mexico are in fact Mexican with a lot of the extras coming from Tijuana. But there are two exceptions, the two main stars of the movie are Rodriguez and Cruz Cordova who plays the main antagonist Lino, who are both Puerto Rican. With as much as the film embraced Tijuana and Mexico it’s an odd choice to not cast Mexican or Mexican-American actors, but ultimately it was Rodriguez’s Hollywood status that got the movie made.

While on the topic of actors, the rushed shooting schedule is visible in scenes where there is no action going on. Despite being written by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, a Latino, some of the Spanish slang used is questionable at least. The rushed shooting schedule of 38 days is also apparent in the pacing of the movie and it feels like there are parts of the film that are missing shots. The events of the movie are supposed to take place over a couple of days, but at times it feels longer, and at others, it feels extremely shorter.

Now, the best part the film is the use of studio lenses Hardwicke uses in the beginning that shows the Gloria’s world as what it is, what she’s comfortable in, and then using them again at the end once she realizes what she is capable of and what she can do. In the second act, Hardwicke focuses on using a less studio-style, in order to get close-ups of Gloria but also provide the background behind her, to show where she is and how it’s affecting her. In these shots, the camera breathes with Gloria and it makes the second act the best part of the film.

Many of this close-ups are striking, and to Rodriguez’s credit, the emotion she shows reaches the audience. That being said, Cruz as Lino is the most charismatic character on-screen, by design yes, but Cruz Cordova is the best actor of the bunch. He is captivating and as Gloria begins to empathize with Lino, we do too. That being said, given the violence he perpetrates, this hint of a romance makes the moment cringey when you remember that he kidnapped her.

The original Miss Bala wasn’t a great movie, and at the end of the day, showcasing a woman with agency is a good thing but a story that is well-paced and cognizant of the culture it’s being made in is more important. There could have been more here. Themes of identity and migration could have been larger, especially with Harwicke and Rodriguez pointing it out to press. The action could have been bigger, but I understand the small budget puts big constraints on it.

Overall, I can’t recommend you head to the theaters and pay the price of admission. It’s a pick it up on RedBox kind of flick. At the end of the day, we have a film that is, in fact, a typical cartel film.

Miss Bala
  • 3/10
    Rating - 3/10
3/10

TL;DR

Overall, I can’t recommend you head to the theaters and pay the price of admission. It’s a pick it up on RedBox kind of flick. At the end of the day, we have a film that is, in fact, a typical cartel film.

1 Comment on “REVIEW: ‘Miss Bala’ Misses its Target”

  1. Miss Bala offers a self-flattering vision of American strength, as one focused gun-toting gal strikes a blow for her gender while cleaning up a skirmish in the ongoing war on drugs.

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