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Miss Bala (A Movie Review)

Miss Bala

MISS BALA (2019)

Starring Gina Rodriguez, Ismael Cruz Córdova, Anthony Mackie, Aislinn Derbez, Matt Lauria, Cristina Rodlo, Ricardo Abarca, Thomas Dekker, Daniela de la Fe, Omar Ayala, Sebastián Cano and the voice of Will Blagrove.

Screenplay by Gareth Dunnett-Alcocer.

Directed by Catherine Hardwicke.

Distributed by Columbia Pictures. 104 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Being from the Philadelphia area, when I first started hearing the title Miss Bala a few months ago, I figured that it must be about a pageant in the tony local Main Line suburb of Bala Cynwyd. (Kobe Bryant grew up there. Represent!)

Boy was I wrong.

Miss Bala is actually an over-the-top, violent action-adventure film about Mexican drug trafficking and kidnapping. Turns out that beyond being a local rich neighborhood, “bala” is the feminine Spanish word for “bullet.” Who knew? (Well, lots of people who can speak Spanish knew, but I don’t, so I didn’t.)

Actually, Miss Bala is an Americanization of a 2011 Mexican adventure film of the same title. I’ve never seen the original, so I can’t compare the two, but honestly the original got some very middling reviews, which sounds pretty consistent with the quality of this new version.

The new American-ized version of Miss Bala revolves around Gloria (Gina Rodriguez), a low-level Hollywood makeup artist who agrees to go down to Tijuana to help her best friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) win a beauty contest for Miss Baja California. (Oh, I get it. Baja… Bala…, close enough.)

Before the pageant, Gloria and Suzu go to a local dance club which is having a party for the pageant, where Suzu wants to network with some of the judges. While there, Gloria stumbles into a plot to kill one of the head judges, who is also the slimy local chief of the policia. (Literally stumbles into it – she is in a ladies’ room stall when the bad guys break into the club through the vents in the incredibly large bathroom.)

The bad guys shoot up the club, killing many people, though their target escapes. Gloria looks through the wreckage for Suzu but can’t find her. She’s not in the hospitals or one of the dead bodies, she seems to be alive but has totally disappeared. In her search for Suzu, Gloria is captured by the bad guys, who force her to do lots of illegal acts while supposedly helping her find her friend.

Gloria finds herself fighting for her life with no one she can trust to help her. Gangsters and drug dealers are everywhere and are vicious. The Mexican police are corrupt. DEA (US Drug Enforcement Agency) agents seem to be using her as a pawn. Even the beauty pageant staff seems to be bought and paid for.

The only reason she has survived is that the head of the drug cartel (Ismael Cruz Córdova) seems to have taken a liking to Gloria, but can she trust his insistence that he is just a misunderstood guy doing what he can to survive in a dirty world?

Miss Bala was directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who once upon a time directed the tough indies Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown before selling out with big-budget films like Twilight and Little Red Riding Hood. Now she is back to the low-budget scale, but it’s not edgy like her previous smaller films, and it is a bit more exploitative.

As an action film, honestly, it’s not bad. There are some very suspenseful sections of the film and the storyline twists and turns intriguingly.

It’s just too bad that it is so poorly timed for a movie like this to be coming out. It is probably important that we don’t let Donald Trump or Stephen Miller see Miss Bala. This is because to a certain extent it is pro-wall porn, and it has come out recently that some of the Trump talking points about the southern border come not from reality, but from the movie Sicario: Day of the Soldado.

That said, I can safely say that the stars and filmmakers – who have been working on this long before the latest round of border hype – were not trying to enforce propaganda. They are not saying that Mexicans are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Even if the storyline does sometimes sort of give that impression. Taking it at a purely entertainment level, Miss Bala is simply a slam-bang, ultra-violent gangster tale. It’s not the film’s fault that it just happens to be coming out at a moment when their subject is particularly controversial and fraught with political baggage. Therefore, the filmmakers are trying to sell it as a female-empowerment tale. And maybe in some ways it even is that. But the story also has some massive Mexico bashing.

Therefore, a movie which could have been an amiable distraction at another time in history has taken on a bit of a bitter aftertaste. Miss Bala is okay, but it’s not a good enough movie to rise above its unintended political baggage.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2019 All rights reserved. Posted: February 1, 2019.

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