Right now, 2019 is looking to be a year where I have gone from appreciating movies for what they are to instead wishing they were something better. I have already sat through M. Night Shyamalan’s “Glass” which started off promisingly, but ended up becoming a contrived mess which left me thinking of what it could and should have been. As much as I pride myself on analyzing movies for what they are, I couldn’t do this with “Glass” as it came with expectations impossible to ignore, and it self-destructed long before the infinitely frustrating conclusion.
Now we have another 2019 movie, “Miss Bala,” which proves to be just as frustrating if not more so. It has an intriguing premise of a young Latino woman caught up in a situation not of her making which has her playing both sides of the same coin to where she manipulates things to come out on top. But what results here is nothing more than a below average action thriller undone by cliched characters and a screenplay filled with contrived situations which willfully defy logic. A lot could have been done with this material, but the filmmakers have instead turned it into the equivalent of a subpar episode of “24.”
Gina Rodriguez of “Jane the Virgin” fame stars as Gloria, a makeup artist in Los Angeles who travels across the border to Tijuana to visit her best friend, Suzu (Cristina Rodlo), who is competing in a local beauty pageant. But during a party at a nightclub, their plans are suddenly thwarted when members of a drug cartel open fire and everyone runs for their lives. Suzu ends up disappearing and Gloria becomes desperate to find her, but this search leads to her getting kidnapped as she becomes a pawn of both drug dealers and the DEA.
Like I said, “Miss Bala” has a very intriguing premise which comes with a lot of promise. Like Cary Grant in “North by Northwest,” Gina Rodriguez plays a character who ends up in a situation not of her own making which leaves her looking guilty in the eyes of the world. What excited me was the anticipation of watching Gloria turn one side against the other as I was convinced she would do so in the most ingenious of ways. It’s fascinating to see a character go from being completely lost to gaining the upper hand once the instinct for survival kicks in.
Alas, “Miss Bala” is quickly undone by a screenplay which doesn’t do nearly enough to make Gloria’s transformation from a frightened civilian to a vengeful warrior emotionally fulfilling or believable. Writer Gareth Dunnett-Alcocer has constructed a kind of “connect-the-dots” screenplay which looks to take some characters and situations in interesting directions and instead resolves them in ways which feel far too pat and simplistic to where it’s like the filmmakers are telling us, “Remember who the good and bad guys are.”
As for the villains, they are a stereotypical bunch of drug cartel gang members who could occupy every other show on network television these days. The filmmakers attempt to balance things out by presenting us with DEA agents who prove to be as bad, but the moment where they turn against Gloria reeks of desperation as they can’t seem to decide what to do with characters who have not been developed in a satisfying way. Even worse, a certain character at the end is revealed to be an agent of another government agency, and it is one Gloria has even more of a reason to distrust than the DEA.
It’s a real shame because Rodriguez proves to be a formidable presence here as Gloria, and you can tell she put her heart and soul into this character as she fearlessly portrays the emotional turmoil of her character’s predicament from start to finish. Sadly, her transition from scared innocent to emboldened warrior never feels believable enough, but this is not necessarily her fault.
Aside from Rodriguez, you have Ismael Cruz Cordova playing an uber cool drug dealer and menace to society named Lino who takes pleasure in intimidating those he feels are beneath him. Part of me is getting sick of characters like these as they act so ridiculously confident even when there are numerous moments which make clear how foolish in who they trust. And just when Lino starts to get interesting, the character is rendered into a stereotypical bad guy through a storytelling device which feels tacked on only for the sake of tying things up quickly.
Anthony Mackie also shows up as another bad guy named Jimmy, but he is completely wasted here as he gives off the same thousand mile stares just like he did in “The Hate U Give.” And when he reappears in the movie’s last half to where we learn more about his character, I wanted to yell at the screen, “Seriously?”
“Miss Bala” was directed by Catherine Hardwicke who made one of the most unforgettable and emotionally visceral teen movies ever with “Thirteen.” I was hoping she would bring the same emotional urgency to this material, but perhaps she has softened her vision a bit too much in the wake of “Twilight” and “Red Riding Hood.” Hardwicke does direct some strong action sequences and she never lets the pace drag for a second, but she is unable to make this action thriller stand out from so many others like it.
I don’t know, maybe I am being a bit unfair to “Miss Bala” as it doesn’t aim to be a genre defying piece of cinema. But even as a simple B-movie with low aspirations, it never truly excites in the ways it wants to. Then again, perhaps I have been spoiled by portrayals of vicious gang members in movies like “Sicario” or “The Infiltrator” as they make the ones here look like paper-thin cartoon characters. For a motion picture looking to be a powerful piece of female empowerment, “Miss Bala” settles for something far less to where the finished project leaves not much of an aftertaste if any. Its ending has the promise of an ongoing franchise where Gloria will equate her skills with guns and deception with her love of makeup, I don’t think we will be seeing a follow-up to this one anytime soon.
It should be noted how this film is a remake of the 2011 Mexican film of the same name. I have not seen the original, but I did take the time to watch its trailer which shows it to be grittier and more interesting than what we got here. If nothing else, I hope this remake will get audiences more interested in the original, let alone make them aware of its existence. The critical acclaim which graced it is not about to be bestowed on this tepid version.
* * out of * * * *