Miss Bala is an American remake of a 2011 Mexican drama, but I admit that I haven’t seen the original before (it’s available to rent on Amazon, YouTube, and the other usual suspects if you’re interested). I chose to go into Catherine Harwicke’s remake mostly blind, having done just enough research to grasp the gist of the plot. So I can’t tell you with precision which rough edges have been smoothed to a Hollywood sheen, though it’s probably enough to say that this remake has traded the original’s R rating for a largely bloodless PG-13 and retooled the ending into something far happier (and more predictable). If I were comparing the two, I get the feeling that I’d have left the theater with a litany of complaints. Which is why, for the moment, I’m happy that I’m judging this Miss Bala on its own terms.
Because it’s worth it to give the spotlight to Gina Rodriguez alone.
Rodriguez stars as Gloria, an LA makeup artist who drives to Tijuana to help her childhood friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) prepare for the Miss Baja California pageant. But corruption is the name of the game in this movie, and that’s why Suzu feels the need to rub elbows with some influential people to improve her shot at winning the crown. Specifically, she wants to impress the chief of police, Saucedo, a lecherous old coot who picks up women at the Millennium night club (and has plans to bed whichever lucky lady wins the pageant). So Suzu and Gloria hit the club, and that’s when all hell breaks loose. When Gloria heads to the bathroom to escape Chief Grabby-hands, she witnesses some thugs breaking in through the vents. This is the La Estrella gang, led by the ridiculously handsome Lino (Ismael Cruz Córdova), and they’re about to shoot the place up in an attempt to kill Saucedo. I think. Look, basically this movie charts a war between Lino’s gang, which runs the drugs, hookers, and guns in Tijuana; the local cops, who are corrupt; and some DEA agents, who are either corrupt or just plain ol’ suck, I couldn’t quite tell which, but they definitely hate Lino. And caught up in it all is poor Gloria, who lost Suzu in the midst of the club shooting and believes at least one of these groups of people can help her find her friend again.
The fact that the plot is a convoluted mess and the details of this criminal underworld never really become clear should be a strike against the film — and it is definitely frustrating. But the film has two things working in its favor: Rodriguez’s performance, and Hardwicke’s direction. Or perhaps that’s really one thing, because they go hand in hand. The camera is married to Gloria’s face throughout, so it’s impossible to tell if our confusion is real, or just an extension of her own. After all, it’s not like Gloria knows what’s going on either. She’s an unwitting pawn, being manipulated and lied to and thrust into danger by the gang and by the DEA, being told by both sides that the only way to see her friend again is to follow their orders — and do their dirty work for them. At times it seems like the entire movie is one fluid close-up of Rodriguez as she riffles through stages of fear with gut-wrenching specificity, and it’s her performance that will keep you invested in the film even as the plot spirals into absurdity.
If this were another kind of movie, it might tease out some of the larger social implications of the story — what it’s like for Gloria and Lino to have roots in both Mexico and the U.S. but be outsiders in both, for example — but it’s almost a relief that it doesn’t. After all, the scenes where Gloria is forced to transport drugs and weapons across the border happen with an ease that might make some people think favorably on building some sort of wall there. Instead, keeping the focus so tightly on Gloria’s experience means that the message stays focused on the impact these wars have on those caught in the crossfire. The powerless, being used and discarded at the whim of corrupt organizations. And every organization is corrupt! So yes, the film’s politics are cartoonishly simple, but that’s because this movie isn’t really gangland thriller at all.
It’s a superhero origin story. No, Gina Rodriguez doesn’t wind up in a cape by the end, but her journey from being played to being the player is a full evolution. At one point Lino tells Gloria that, “La Bala settles everything.” Bala means bullet, and in this world where everyone is corrupt, everyone is also equal — provided they have a gun. And yes, by the climax of the film Gloria becomes a certified gun-toting badass, but that’s not what makes her powerful. Her real superpower is survival — the way that she grapples with her fears, uses her wits and stays just one step ahead of everyone using her. She becomes a different kind of bullet, one that settles matters on her own terms, and part of that reworked Hollywood happy ending is that it leaves her Miss Bala open for return appearances. It’s impossible not to imagine a future franchise as the truth of Anthony Mackie’s mysterious weapons dealer becomes apparent. And maybe that’s why I am giving this movie more credit than it probably deserves. I’m biased. In some ways I wish Gina Rodriguez had a better vehicle to star in than this movie, but on the other hand it’s almost refreshing to watch a movie where a woman undergoes a transformation of the sort that Gloria does. Because she’s normal — utterly normal — and she rises to the occasion not out of vengeance but out of necessity and loyalty. A woman turning the tables on those who use her. A woman looking out for herself. And Gina Rodriguez is the reason this movie works.
If Gina Rodriguez can make me misty-eyed about a movie as mediocre as Miss Bala, she can do anything.
Header Image Source: Columbia Pictures