Miss Bala is a story of an innocent bystander caught between two sides of a war. Unwittingly working for both the drug kingpin (Ismael Cruz Cordova) and the DEA, Gloria (Gina Rodriguez), must take her fate into her own hands to save herself and her friend.
And it’s a fairly bland experience.
Gloria travels to Tijuana to see her friend, Suzu (Cristina Rodlo), who is about to compete in the Miss Baja California pageant. After a night club shooting, Suzu disappears and Gloria is kidnapped.
We learn this much about Gloria, our protagonist: she has lived in America most of her life, her father is deceased, she has a friend (and a friendship bracelet), and her name is Gloria. Par for the course with these schlocky action pictures, we are only given enough information for us to know we are supposed to sympathize with the hero’s plight.
But as much as Gina Rodriguez can sell the fear and anguish, there is little engaging about her character. She is one of only three characters worth rooting for (the other two combine for upwards of 10 minutes of screentime), so not feeling the urge to invest in her struggle is an issue.
The action of the film is no more engaging. In fact, less so. In terms of the action set pieces, Miss Bala opens with constant flashing lights and screaming gunfire in a night club; middles with an incompetent arms deal gone wrong with confusing editing and pitiful staging; and ends with a foggy, hail-of-bullets slow-mo sequence aimed at making our hero look cool with a big gun. None of it is particularly interesting, and all of it looks fairly ugly.
These sequences are turgid and lifeless, housed within a narrative that is flat enough as to require the action to make up for it. Although, even if the narrative motivation for these sequences were compelling, the visual presentation of them would still suffer. A jittery camera pans around actors who are blocked static, giving the illusion of high-energy excitement. Rapid editing wrenches us across the geography of the setting, proving more disorienting than thrilling.
This makes for an ugly film, visually, but Miss Bala is similarly ugly ideologically.
The title Miss Bala takes its name from a 2011 film, and it also riffs on the Miss Baja California pageant of its plot. The title also brings to mind Ms. 45, another B-movie whose title connects femininity and a bullet. Scott Tobias, then writing for The Dissolve, called Abel Ferrara’s film one that “thread[s] a thin needle: the film could be called a feminist exploitation movie—a contradiction in terms if there ever was one … it is thoughtful and provocative, but it also makes for one hell of a [sic] sexy poster.”
The exploitation elements in Ms. 45 are used to highlight present concerns, to raise the issue by not shying away from the ugliness of it. If Miss Bala wants to do the same (and make for one hell of a sexy poster while it’s at it), then I am unsure exactly what its message intends to be.
If it aims to have no larger thematic message, then what makes it “provocative” proves to make it reprehensible. This is a PG-13 action film whose main premise and climax hinge on human trafficking, forced prostitution, the implication of sexual assault, and a generalized objectification of the women on screen. The film does not condone these things, certainly, but it nevertheless presents them in all of their harrowing, gritty reality without probing at anything deeper or more nuanced. Given this is a film an eighth grader can go see unaccompanied, that appears to be a problem.
On the other side of the coin, the PG-13 rating proves the lack of bite in Miss Bala. For all of its exploitation elements, it never takes a full-throated approach to the grittiness it presents. The lack of morality evidenced on both sides of this criminal war provides some sort of political message, but that message was presented with a realism more brutally (and more fully) realized in Sicario.
The excessive implication of sexual violence is something that the film certainly did not need to amplify to R-rated content, but the lack of justification for such grim material, the lack of discourse over the weight of that subject matter, makes it unsuitable for a PG-13 crowd. The economic decision to water this material down to a PG-13 rating is pure Hollywood cynicism, and the resulting product is both bloodless and exploitative.
For what it’s worth, the first half of Miss Bala moves with a good clip. The pacing becomes an issue when you realize that the script not only lacks the aforementioned nuance, but that it doesn’t have enough story to fill its runtime. The premise of an innocent character caught in the crossfire is all the script really has, so by the third or fourth time that Gloria attempts to escape, is recaptured, and then is forced to do something that she’d rather not do it all becomes rather plodding. Rodriguez is the film’s redeeming quality. But by the end, she isn’t enough to make the scenes approachable enough to enjoy.
Miss Bala is a glamorized Hollywood remake, a shoot-em-up thriller that makes a non-American locale seem exotic and dangerous to Americans and that dabbles in very serious subject matter without nuance. While this approach adds a grimy layer to the film, the disgust evoked as a result is used more to titillate than it is to make a statement. The common counter-argument here is that this brand of action film is not meant to be analyzed, and that watching merely for the action is satisfaction enough. Unfortunately, this film does not satisfy in that regard, either.
Miss Bala: D-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)