I found the very concept of “Miss Bala” to be promising. It’s a female-driven crime-thriller with a predominantly Latino cast and crew built around an interesting story premise and with plenty of big action. I found myself genuinely hopeful and rooting for the movie to offer a new and unique point of view.
We certainly get glimpses of that as director Catherine Hardwicke tries to walk the line between fresh and conventional. For the most part she succeeds. To my surprise “Miss Bala” isn’t wall-to-wall action with story beats only meant to move us to the next set piece. Instead Hardwicke and writer Gareth Dunnett-Alcocer give more attention to storytelling than to bullet-soaked bravado. If only the script had covered all its bases.
The film stars Gina Rodriguez who gives a truly eye-opening performance. She plays Gloria, an ambitious make-up artist working in Los Angeles. She heads to Tijuana, Mexico to visit and help her best friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) prepare for the Miss Baja beauty pageant. The trouble starts when the two friends go to a swanky nightclub in hopes of making connections with some of the pageant bigwigs. A shootout breaks out, Suzu disappears and Gloria finds herself in the clutches of a ruthless boy band…..errr… drug gang.
The leader of this young and often shirtless band of hoodlums is Lino (Ismael Cruz Córdova). He tells Gloria he’ll help her find Suzu but first she has to do some jobs for him (not that she really has a choice in the matter). At the same time the DEA gets wind of her and demands she works as their mole in Lino’s gang in exchange for their protection. Gloria ends up a pawn between two warring groups and must play both sides in order to stay alive.
“Miss Bala” is most effective when it centers on Gloria’s quest to survive in a world dominated by devious, power-hungry men. Rodriguez sells fear and dread at the perfect temperature. Her emotions ring true and every action she takes feels as though they are coming from a real place. In other words she is no female take on John Rambo. Hardwicke’s perspective always keeps her humanity in focus.
Where the film falls short is in its characterization of its villains. First off it never goes as deep as it should in describing who these violent baddies are. Does the strangely dreamy Lino and his goons work for a cartel? Are they middlemen or do they run the show? The other group is just as undefined – generic corrupt politicians somehow linked to a sex trafficking ring. It also doesn’t help that most of them are as smart as a bag of rocks.
“Miss Bala” lacks the edge you would expect from this type of movie and its story plays out in the most implausible way. I also think you could argue that the film comes a little to close to glamorizing gang life. But Rodriguez is really good and she’s given just enough to keep us invested in her and her survival despite the pieces around her sometimes falling short. She ends up being enough for me to recommend the film while at the same team fully realizing it could have been a lot better.
VERDICT – 3 STARS