Gina Rodriguez's border thriller Miss Bala misses hard, despite its talented star
The original Spanish-language Miss Bala premiered at Cannes in 2011, earned almost universal acclaim, and went on to become Mexico’s offering for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar the following year.
Some things, alas, clearly got lost in translation. The Bala remake that director Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight, Thirteen) delivers is the kind of purely ridiculous pulp thriller you’d watch on a slow Saturday and immediately forget — if not for the fact that it’s one of the few major studio films to feature an almost entirely Latino cast, and that it’s led by Gina Rodriguez, one of the most authentically likable young actresses working in Hollywood today.
She stars as Gloria, an L.A. makeup artist who often crosses the border to see her best friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo), an aspiring beauty queen in Tijuana. When a night out at a club goes spectacularly, violently wrong, Suzu disappears, and Gloria suddenly finds herself in the middle of a living nightmare.
Before she can even change out of her party dress, a cartel led by Lino (Ray Donovan’s Ismael Cruz Córdova) kidnaps her, forces her to commit a federal crime, and enlists her in a larger plot to run guns and money back to California. If she does it, they might let her live to find Suzu; if she doesn’t, they’ll obliterate her and her godson. Unless the DEA, who have already tracked on to her activities and think she’s Lino’s willing moll, kill her first.
Rodriguez makes the absolute best of an almost willfully mediocre script; she’s tough and vulnerable and somehow manages to make it all seem at least partially believable, whether she’s suddenly a pro with a machine gun or slipping into slinky formalwear to take the crown at a fixed Miss Baja California contest.
Cordova’s Lino also has a sort of soft-eyed appeal that belies all the, you know, rampant sociopathy, and Hardwicke seems determined to turn him into an unlikely romantic hero. (If Twilight can make a lust object out of a blood-sucking vampire, why not a mere murderous drug lord?). All killers have backstories of course, and his tragedies are no exception, but the retrograde sexual politics vs. teen-girl fantasy of it all hit a weird, weird note.
Anthony Mackie appears briefly to deliver some of the silliest lines (a preview audience burst out howling more than once, and they were not laughing with him). But it’s mostly left to Rodriguez to carry the absurdity on her shoulders, and the fact that she makes it so watchable is a real testament to her abilities. Next time, may the material rise at least halfway to meet her. C