Film and TV

Reviews For The Easily Distracted:
Miss Bala

Title: Miss Bala

Describe This Movie Using One Grease Quote:

FRANKIE AVALON: Your future's so unclear now,
What's left of your career now?

Brief Plot Synopsis:
 Mexican-American gets caught between forces Mexican and American.

Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: 2 coconut drinks out of 5.

Tagline: "Who would you become to save your family?"

Better Tagline: "Alternately, what would you do to save a non-relative childhood friend, which is actually the case here?"

Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: Gloria Meyer (Gina Rodriguez) was looking forward to a fun weekend in Tijuana doing the makeup for her friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo), a contestant in the Miss Baja California pageant. Their partying is interrupted by gang violence, and when Suzu goes missing, Gloria finds herself ensnared in the activties of the notorious Los Estrellas gang. Even worse, she;s managed to catch the eye of their leader Lino (Ismael Cruz Córdova).

"Critical" Analysis:
Miss Bala is an American remake of a 2011 Mexican production, itself based on a real-life incident where a Sinaloa beauty contestant was arrested in a gang bust. That's more or less where the similarity ends, as both movies extrapolate what circumstances might have led a pageant hopeful to such a fate.

Choosing to make Gloria an American makeup artist instead of an aspiring south-of-the-border beauty queen perhaps speaks to this country's growing disinterest/dislike for such affairs, or maybe the studio was worried we wouldn't be as emotionally invested in a Mexican protagonist. In which case, they learned precisely the wrong lessons from that second Sicario movie.

Rodriguez is believable enough as a fish out of water trying to improvise her way out of a dangerous situation, and she conveys Gloria's terror and confusion capably. Trouble is, there's no real explanation why someone with no skills relevant to either the narcotics business or counter-trafficking is so initially appealing to both Los Estrellas and — eventually — the DEA.

Then again, Lino's interest is obvious. Director Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight, Thirteen) thankfully doesn't go down the obvious direction for such a "relationship." The gang leader eventually turns out to be American raised as well, but any budding Stockholm Syndrome-esque romance screeches to a halt when he, well, acts like a ruthless drug dealer and murders someone.

It also doesn't help that Córdova looks a lot like Fenster from The Usual Suspects.

It's hard to say if Hardwicke's unwillingness to ugly things up is a feature or a bug of Miss Bala. One perhaps inevitable outcome of taking a critically acclaimed Mexican movie and shifting the focus to an American character is the watering down of Gloria's experience, especially her eventual fate. But then, audiences have gotten to the point where it's expected that the protagonist will emerge largely unscathed from even the most harrowing of ordeals. 

Further, although Gloria is caught between the rock of the murderous drug dealer and the hard place of government strong-arm tactics, she's not allowed to demonstrate any real agency. Yanked from one conflict to another, the only real action she participates in (before the ludicrous final act) is hiding a tracking chip. And in one of the movies more bizarre scenes, she starts a kitchen fire to distract a bunch of the bad guys who weren't even paying attention to her in the first place.

The relative inaction eventually steers us to the .gangbusters finale, in which Gloria puts the 90 seconds of firearm training she received earlier in the movie to use. There's a twist you may or may not see coming and likely won't care about, and isn't until you're watching an evening gown-clad Rodriguez brandish an assault rifle (and maybe enjoying it too much), that you wonder what the hell you just sat through.

Miss Bala might have succeeded if Hardwicke and company had leaned into the weirdness of the premise or done anything to deviate from the depressingly linear plot. As it is, even Rodriguez's efforts aren't enough to earn our emotional investment.

And if we're being honest, muling drugs across the U.S.-Mexican border is less embarrassing gaffe for a beauty contestant than claiming most Americans don't have maps.
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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar