FILM REVIEW – MISS BALA. With Gina Rodriguez, Anthony Mackie, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Matt Lauria, Cristina Rodlo. Written by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Rated PG-13 for sequences of gun violence, sexual and drug content, thematic material, and language. 113 minutes.
MISS BALA, based on the 2011 Mexican film of the same name, is low-brow and pulpy, which is not to say it doesn’t work. It propels its heroine through a series of unlikely situations as she’s caught between a Mexican drug cartel and corrupt officials on both sides of the border. As with most pulp fiction, it’s successful only as far as it gets you caught up in her dilemma so that you’re not poking holes in it.
Gina Rodriguez, from TV’s “Jane the Virgin,” stars as Gloria, an American make-up artist going to visit her friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) in Tijuana. One evening they’re out clubbing when the place is shot up by a gang led by Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova), targeting the local chief of police. Gloria escapes but she can’t find Suzu, who has not turned up dead or at a hospital. Before Gloria can look far, she is kidnapped by Lino’s gang. He promises to help her find her friend, if she first performs some jobs for him.
Without giving too much away, Gloria subsequently finds herself in the hands of an unscrupulous DEA agent (Matt Lauria) who coerces her into going back to Lino in order to set him up. Further complications ensue, with Lino veering between acting tenderly and being a violent thug. The payoff to the story will leave the viewer wondering if this is a set up for a potential film franchise.
If that’s the case, a lot of the credit will go to Rodriguez. She hits the right notes in showing Gloria as being in way over her head but making it clear that she’s a survivor. Bit by bit, as she gets through one harrowing situation after another, she discovers an inner strength she didn’t know she had. When she gets to the climactic showdown, she’s changed from who she was at the beginning. Without Rodriguez showing Gloria’s evolution, the ending would come off as even more absurd than it is.
Politically and culturally, the film is a mixed bag. On the plus side of the ledger, the film has a mostly Latino cast – although Anthony Mackie pops up as an unexpected contact – and a woman director in Catherine Hardwicke. What’s especially interesting about the latter is that this kind of action film rarely has a female protagonist much less a female director. Hardwicke keeps things moving while ensuring that the violence is kept at a PG-13 level. There are numerous killings, but the camera doesn’t give us mutilated corpses. On the other side is the image of most of the Mexican characters playing into the worst sort of stereotypes. One can only hope President Trump doesn’t see this as, according to some reports, he’s made claims that seem tied to last year’s “Sicario: Day of the Soldado.”
“Miss Bala” is what used to be called a B-movie. It’s not deep and its lurid story may not stand up to logic, but if all you ask is that it’s got action and someone to root for, it delivers.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, has just been released. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.