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It’s hard to consider Miss Bala with anything but startling disappointment. A Hollywood actioner led by a young Latina starlet, retooling a Mexican critical darling for American audiences, in a coming out party for Gina Rodriguez. If all these were working in harmony, this could have worked out very, very well. In the hands of Catherine Hardwicke, it does not. Like, at all. The Twilight director shaves Miss Bala down to the most generic premise and skates around the very thing that could have made it a powerful feminist action film – empowering the woman at the center of the film, tinkering with the best-laid plans of mice and men that seek to dominate her. Instead, Rodriguez’s Gloria is passive eye candy, consistently strong-armed (physically and mentally) by the men around her, and only taking agency at the very last moment possible. 

From the very beginning, Miss Bala suggests that its feminism is askew. When Gloria goes to help her BFF Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) enroll in a Miss Baja beauty contest, the registrar eyes Gloria with discontent, commenting that “she must not be signing up.” In this moment I guess we’re supposed to pretend that Gina Rodriguez isn’t a smoking hot Hollywood star. It’s an early example of how Gloria’s character will be defined by her looks and dominated by the patriarchy that surrounds her, gobbles her up, and spits her out, a frankly degrading cycle that will continue up until nearly the last scene of the movie. 

When Suzu is snatched up by parties unknown after a failed nightclub assassination, Gloria finds herself having to navigate both the dangerous La Estrella gang and various American special agencies in order to get her friend back. Lots of the establishing plot points make almost no sense and you have to assume that Gloria’s supreme naivety is always at the wheel. Stupid woman, the film seems to jeer at her. This sets Gloria up as a double-agent working who, at the direction of the DEA, is made to cozy up to Estrella leader Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova), with whom the picture tries to establish a will-they-won’t-they romantic tinge, despite the fact that Lino has already made Gloria strip at gunpoint, repeatedly touched her without her consent, and casually threatens her life whenever he feels like it. Lino is supposed to be the hot-but-damaged ruffian but he’s really just a rapey POS that anyone with a brain and a heart is just waiting to get plugged.

Throughout the movie, Gloria’s powerlessness is manifested in many ways, mainly by her physically being led, a man’s hand grabbing her by the arm and dragging her from here to there. There’s a moment in the middle of the movie, where Gloria realizes that no-one is there to help her and she has to fend for herself if she wants to make it out of this situation alive, that finally gives her some agency, only to strip it away the next scene, which quite literally has Lino telling her to change into nicer, sexier clothes. So much for empowering the ladies, folks. Ya fucked that up. 

On top of all that, screenwriter Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer fails to add much depth to Gloria beyond her tepid reaction to the situations she’s stuffed into. We know that she’s a makeup artist (in the very first scene her boss tells her “we don’t pay you to think”, because, again, this movie hates ladies) and we know that she feels a bit trapped between her Latino ancestry and American upbringing and we know she is a devoted friend… but Miss Bala fails to tell us much of anything about Gloria as a human being. Continuing to pacify her and leaving her to witness the violent world of men with wide-eyed horror isn’t enough in itself. Nor is her singular motivation to save a friend going to cut it. Dunnet-Alcocer’s is basic one-dimensional screenwriting producing basic one-dimensional characters. It just doesn’t work.

Trying to dissect the why of it all – why this story, with these characters, why this dialogue – Miss Bala begins to feel like a reverse-engineered feature. A movie designed around a board-friendly single image: a defiant latina woman wearing a red dress armed with an AR-15. Unfortunately, the dude responsible for getting us there is playing by an outdated rulebook, adopting callous misogyny as an ally and relying on silly cooked-up happenstances that feel precisely as if they have been worked out backward, leaving behind a spread of gaps in logic and emotion better to rush past. That being said, the tacos in one scene did look mighty delicious.

The action as shot by Ms. Hardwicke is nothing noteworthy. A handful of shoot-outs fail to get the pulse pumping and even the intended nerve-wracking moments – for instance, Gloria bugging the phone of her captor – don’t create the kind of tension that a movie like this lives and dies by. I was never once wrapped up in this tale, on the edge of my seat, hoping beyond hope for Gloria’s survival. It always felt assured; her making it to the end a sure thing net result. That is in part due to the super-generic telling of this story, which itself seems white-washed of risk. Turns out that it’s hard to muster legitimate stakes when everything feels so structurally safe and in line with familiar, worn-out patterns.

Throughout it all, Gina Rodriguez displays promise as a potential next-big-thing. She’s no monster talent and doesn’t really do much worth commenting on but she has a raw watchability to her that’s undeniable, much like The Rock in his earlier days. Buried beneath dreck like Miss Bala, it’s damn hard to shine, but in the right starring vehicle, the younger Rodriguez could really break out and this does nothing to tarnish her chance of future opportunity. This just won’t be the movie to do it, despite Miss Bala trying to stuff an 11th-hour hail mary franchise teaser that you best believe no one wants.

CONCLUSION: Even if you erase the messy gender politics and aggressively anti-feminist bent of ‘Miss Bala’, you’re still left with little more than a mildly watchable action movie defined by unremarkable set pieces, a generic script, and flat characters.

D+

 

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