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Saturday, February 02, 2019

Miss Bala

A remake of a 2011 Mexican thriller, Miss Bala has been getting a big drubbing from my fellow critics, and I kind of wonder why.  Oh, it's not a great movie by any means.  Some of the film's messages seem to be a bit confused, and I have no idea why the filmmakers felt a movie about sex trafficking and violent cartels had to be rated PG-13. (Did they really expect the teen market to turn out for this?)  But, there is some stuff to admire here, especially the lead performance by Gina Rodriguez.

Up to now, Rodriguez has mostly been associated with lighter roles, but she shows a real flare for drama and action here playing Gloria, a young Mexican-American make up artist living in L.A. who gets caught up in the world of cartels and gun-running when she visits Tijuana to see a childhood friend named Suzu (Cristina Rodlo).  In her performance, she brings a lot of likability to her early scenes, and as the situation intensifies, she begins to show a steely determination to survive, which is what the movie is built entirely around.  We watch Gloria as she has to constantly stay ahead of her captors in order to stay alive, and she sells that determination every time she's on the screen.  Even if the script credited to Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer is a bit rocky at times, she is always worth watching.

The reason for Gloria's visit with Suzu is that she has come to help her prepare for the Miss Baja California beauty pageant.  The title of the film refers to the fact that "Bala" means "bullet" in Spanish, and its similarity to the beauty contest's name.  Suzu takes Gloria to a nightclub in order to chat up some people associated with the pageant, and while they are partying, the friends are separated when a violent shooting breaks out within the club.  Trying to track Suzu down, Gloria turns to the police, but ends up being helped by a shady officer who hands her off to the La Estrella cartel.  They begin forcing her to partake in weapon runs across the border, and even involve her in a murder plot.  All the while, the DEA are using her as a mole within the cartel, hoping to get at their leader, Lino (Ismael Cruz-Cordova).

The crux of the film is built around how Gloria begins to feel some connection to the people holding her captive, especially Lino, who also grew up in California, and both have spent most of their lives struggling with their identities and heritage.  This knowledge is supposed to humanize Lino, and make him more than just a violent sociopath, and maybe someone that Gloria could make a real connection with under different circumstances.  But it's hard to become emotionally attached to the characters, their connection, and their plight, because the script never quite seems to have a handle on it.  It specializes in some frantic action sequences, and the scenes where Gloria has to think fast or race against the clock in order to survive do have some intensity to them.  But whenever the movie seems to be trying to make a statement about violence or corrupt cops and officials, it gets a bit murkier.

That's because Miss Bala seems to be kind of twisting its message a bit.  This is supposed to be the story of a woman who gets dragged into a violent underworld, and how she struggles to escape.  However, how this movie handles it, it almost seems to want to be a story about empowerment.  When Gloria gets a gun in her hands, she's not fearful, she's immediately stronger, and gets to be a badass with a slow motion shot of her wearing a slinky outfit as she walks away from the carnage.  Director Catherine Hardwicke (2008's Twilight) never quite hits the messages of violence and corruption hard enough, and instead seems to be glorifying them.  The scenes that we do see Gloria afraid and trying to outsmart people are when the movie is at its best, and come the closest to the film we should have got.  If it had settled on a more consistent tone of survival and fear, I think this could have been a great little thriller.

Still, I did admire the movie at times, and Rodriguez's performance was enough to hold my interest.  I can see how some could be disappointed by its confused tone, but it's really nowhere near as awful as some are making it out to be.  There's bound to be much better movies than Miss Bala in the coming weeks and months, but even at the start of February, I have already seen much worse.

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