MISS BALA: Featured

MISS BALA has the misfortune of being based on a well-regarded fairly recent Spanish-language film. Moreover, that previous film was inspired by a real-life truly strange incident involving a beauty queen winner being arrested with several gang members in a truck filled with all kinds of weapons.

In other words, this film is produced in the wake of both an incredible true story and an excellent adaptation. That is a high mountain to climb. Can MISS BALA do it?

MISS BALA: Gloria
Gina Rodriguez glances towards trouble in a moment from MISS BALA. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures)

The Idea Behind MISS BALA

Gloria (Gina Rodriguez) lives and works as a makeup artist in Los Angeles. This week, however, she has set off for Mexico to meet up with her old friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo). Gloria, although an American, lived in Mexico for a time while her dad worked down there. Gloria never quite felt like she belonged, except when hanging out with Suzu and their friendship has endured.

The plan is that Gloria will do Suzu’s makeup for the Miss Baja California Beauty Pageant and help her friend win the scholarship. In between competition related activities, however, the two plan to live it up and schmooze the judges as best as they can.

Their first attempt to do so, however, ends with a shootout and the two separated. Gloria gets out of the club, but Suzu seems to have disappeared into thin air. To find her, Gloria reaches out to the police with information on the shooters. Instead of helping, however, the cop delivers her directly to the gang. Before long, she is forced by a corrupt DEA agent to act as a double agent inside the gang.

As double crosses pile up and people’s allegiances seem to change, Gloria must navigate Mexican criminal politics to keep herself free and, perhaps, find her friend.

MISS BALA: Gloria and Brian Reich
Gina Rodriguez appears to be putting together a puzzle with corrupt DEA agent Matt Lauria in a scene from MISS BALA. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures)

Writing MISS BALA

Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, adapting Gerardo Naranjo and Mauricio Katz’s Spanish-language script, makes a few changes that seem to have less to do with story than with marketing. Presumably, they made Gloria American to justify the English and to interest American audiences more. However, why change her name and have her be a makeup artist instead of also a pageant contestant. It adds complications to the storyline that demand fairly silly fixes that do not enhance the story. Even without the original in the shadows, it feels ludicrous. The gang, La Estrella, has enough money and leverage to bribe an entire pageant under the nose of its primary benefactor? But not enough to bribe a couple of bodyguards to leave the chief unprotected? Or even easier, to just kill the chief for Estrella? And it all could have been avoided if they just let Gloria naturally join the pageant.

In general, the script does a good job of assembling the world of MISS BALA. It sets a nice foundation with the DEA, the police, and the gang all seemingly being hopelessly intertwined and an unhealthy mix of corrupt and decent at all times. However, in practice, the film cannot seem to keep things straight. The DEA disappears halfway through the film never to be seen again. The CIA, ludicrously, becomes involved. The gang and its leader Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova) never sell that they are some kind of gang for the people. They don’t seem to believe it so the audience certainly does not. And, as the story goes, with the exception of the chief, all the dirty cops seem bought off by Estrella. That effectively makes them the sole bad element.

MISS BALA: Gloria and Lino
Ismael Cruz Cordova and Gina Rodriguez take a moment to appreciate the scenery in MISS BALA. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures)

Casting The Full Callsheet

After her work in ANNIHILATION last year, it comes as no surprise that Rodriguez can handle a gun well. What makes her performance noteworthy here is that it is the first time we’ve seen her incorporate the gunplay side of herself with the “I’m just an average everyday person,” side. In other words, she gets us to believe she’s just like us, and she can be great with a gun. If Rodriguez does want to introduce more action into her filmography — and it appears she does — this is a good sign.

Cordova has a nice unsettling charisma to him. However, that works against what the movie wants him to be. The film seems to want Lino’s dangerousness to recede as Gloria gets to know him. Cordova, however, never stops being disconcerting. His attempts to woo Gloria all feel rife with menace. Again, if the movie wants us to entertain the idea of “what if the criminals are the good guys, really?” it needs to sell it better. I’d love to see Cordova in something else, but here his energy feels all wrong for the part.

Damián Alcázar’s Chief Saucedo is wonderfully scummy and unpleasant. He gets the energy of the movie and really sells it. While I never believed the gang might be good people, I did believe the Chief could be wildly corrupt, not just a lecherous old man.

It is really just those three’s show. Rodlo disappears for too long and when she comes back, the only thing she’s asked to do is tremble while pretty. Lino’s soldiers feel more or less like Random Criminal #1 except Ricardo Abarca’s Poyo who differentiates himself by being particularly unpleasant.

MISS BALA: Lino
Ismael Cruz Cordova surveys all he commands in a scene from MISS BALA. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures)

Filming MISS BALA

Director Catherine Hardwicke is no slouch when it comes to capturing action. However, the movie strangely demands little of it. Besides a setpiece set in an abandoned parking lot, most of the gunfights end quickly. Moreover, they feel edited within an inch of their lives. Only in the parking lot scene does Hardwicke really let the action be expansive and linger on-screen. It looks good when she does, but she does it so rarely.

However, Hardwicke does inject a good sense of energy in the other scenes. She has a good eye for nontraditional closeups that both increase the tension of a scene and draw your attention to details you might otherwise miss.

Finally, despite the potential for exploitation being high here, she nicely sidesteps it. More than a few shots of barely dressed women being afraid get featured, but the camera neither lingers nor sexualizes them. Even in a scene where Lino demands Gloria strip for him, Hardwicke gives the camera a jittery POV that spends more time on her studying Rodriguez’ reaction than revealing her body.

That’s a Wrap!

If the story intrigues, and it should, just watch the original with subtitles (unless your Spanish is better than mine). This movie feels more ludicrous, less smart, and somehow far more unpleasant to women than its inspiration.

Even without the original to compare it to, though, this MISS BALA feels bland. Hardwicke’s strong eye cannot paper over the weak script. Rodriguez may well be an action star yet, but this is not the vehicle to get her there.

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