Action movies have, like anything I suppose, been products of their time. The “action movie tell” comes in the form of the villains. Who’s the bad guy? Who’s gotta get got?
For awhile it was the Soviets, whether they were invading the good ‘ol US of A or punching Sylvester Stallone out in the ring. Nazis never really go out of style; punching Nazis is as American and cinematic as apple pie and Steven Spielberg. Extremists/terrorists can lump just about any group with another, giving Hollywood screenwriters and casting directors all sorts of ways to offend people. Today we find headlines covering the horrors and exploits of many a Mexican or South American drug cartel, so they’re the flavor of the day, and we get films like Miss Bala. Hopefully tomorrow is better.
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Release Date: February 1st, 2019
Bala is based on a 2011 Mexican film of the same name, with seemingly the same premise. Though if the mostly-positive light in which the original is held is accurate, the similarities are merely skin-deep. After being caught in a flashy neon shootout south of the border involving narcos and police, Hollywood makeup artist Gloria (Gina Rodriguez) finds herself drawn into the world of the Mexican cartels in an effort to locate her friend Suzu (Cristina Rodio), whom she lost in the chaos of the violence.
Bala‘s promotional material sort of sells you on a kickass action film in which Rodriguez carves a swath of chaos through the Mexican underworld, but largely to the film’s credit, the action is paced throughout the film sparingly, never going full-Michael Bay in its onslaught on the audience’s eardrums.
More often than not we’re given the anxiety Gloria faces as she’s forced to play ball for the cartels to save her friend, squaring off with baby-faced narco Lino (Ismael Cruz Córdova) as he pulls strings and uses Gloria as a pawn in the daily struggles of cartel life. Criminal scumbags gotta pay for their barbacoa somehow.
I say “baby-faced” not as a joke (well sort of) but as Bala‘s biggest problem: Bala ain’t got no bite.
Lino smooth-talks Gloria while ordering her to undress at gunpoint; there’s the threat of violence as he sits and shares a meal with her, giving a little history to this suave bandito. Where we get the general idea that the filmmakers want us to feel the tension of a character like Breaking Bad‘s Tuco, one capable of snapping between play and punch at the drop of a pin, Lino just comes across as cushy.
I don’t know that grisly violence would have helped Miss Bala, but the PG-13 rating is evident in the bloodless shootouts and the simple allusion to cartel horrors. I could flip the news on to something infinitely more terrifying. What then, are we to hold onto here? Gina!
Without question, Rodriguez’s performance is the saving grace of the film, almost transcending the stupid-simple script and cliched tensions. She has a charisma and attitude that develop as Gloria becomes increasingly used to her extreme situation, and though the performance doesn’t save the film, it takes “awful” to “watchable.”
But “watchable” isn’t “good.” The tension never sticks with Miss Bala because the threat of violence never really occurs to you, the consequences on display nothing more than Hollywood sound and fury.
The characters are laughably one-dimensional, with a particularly egregious corrupt DEA agent (Matt Lauria) coming across as nothing more than a plot device, pushing Gloria further into the arms of the cartel in picking a side. Her rejection of the abrasive DEA scheme could have ended up as interesting. A victim who’s better off with help from criminals than an American institution? How shocking! Instead we’re hit by a sledgehammer with the details, strung along for a ride rather than asked to think.
It wouldn’t be so bad if Bala’s bullet ballets were something special, but action is your typical shaky edit-fest, with loud music from the soundtrack robbing scenes of gravitas.
I don’t know that there was really much potential to begin with in a film like Miss Bala. To really stand out, you feel like an action movie really needs an ace in the hole to be above the throngs of mindless fare. Sicario in 2015 stood out because of its commitment to the raw brutality of the cartels, and director Denis Vileneuve’s technical precision. Marvel’s slate of superhero films get by on their scope and spectacle, and occasional synchronization with the year’s zeitgeist (see: Black Panther). Miss Bala makes an effort to empower its female lead, something we could do with more of, but rather than firing piercing full metal jackets she’s armed with a magazine of blanks.