Gina Rodriguez is an empowering, if reluctant hero in Miss Bala, offering a fascinating star turn in Hardwicke's skillfully wrought action thriller.
Director Catherine Hardwicke made a name for herself early on in her career, hitting the industry in 2003 with Thirteen, an unflinching look at life for young girls. More than 15 years later, Hardwicke returns with Miss Bala, an adaptation of the same-named Mexican film that released in 2011. The original movie was well received at the time, premiering at the Cannes Film Festival and earning mostly positive reviews. Now, Hardwicke's movie adapts the basic premise of the 2011 film for a new action-thriller, assembling a solid cast to bring this new vision to life. Gina Rodriguez is an empowering, if reluctant hero in Miss Bala, offering a fascinating star turn in Hardwicke's skillfully wrought action thriller.
Miss Bala introduces Gloria (Rodriguez), a woman living and working in L.A. as a makeup artist who takes a trip down to Tijuana, Mexico to visit her childhood friend, Suzu (Cristina Rodlo). Suzu is planning to enter the Miss Baja California pageant in an attempt to win the prize money and scholarship that comes along with it. Gloria is there to support her friend and act as her makeup artist. The night before pageant rehearsals start, the girls go to the Millennium Night Club to mingle with Police Chief Saucedo, who has a great deal of influence over who wins the pageant. However, members of the Mexican cartel La Estrella enter the club and attempt to assassinate Chief Saucedo, shooting up the club in the process.
In the firefight, Gloria loses sight of Suzu and though she tries to find her friend, she is unable to locate Suzu anywhere after the violence at the club. Instead, she's abducted by the cartel and taken to see the leader of La Estrella, Lino (Ismael Cruz Córdova). Lino promises to help Gloria find Suzu, but he asks her to do him a few - illegal - favors first. Because of the favors, Gloria crosses paths with DEA agents, lead by Brian Reich (Matt Lauria), who are working to take down Lino and La Estrella, and recruit Gloria to spy on Lino for them. As she continues to navigate this world, her position becomes increasingly precarious, as she runs across a number of Lino's associates, including his right-hand man Pollo (Ricardo Abarca) and U.S. contact Jimmy (Anthony Mackie). Although Gloria is determined to rescue Suzu, it remains to be seen whether she will be able to survive on her own, let alone find and save her friend.
Miss Bala was directed by Hardwicke from a script by Mexican-born writer Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer - who's been tapped to pen the in-development Scarface reboot for Universal and Warner Bros' Blue Beetle comic book movie. Dunnet-Alcocer brings a great deal of depth and authenticity to the characters in Miss Bala, especially capturing the in-betweenness of Gloria and Lino, who both grew up in Mexico and the United States, with Lino revealing he never felt at home in either country. The movie doesn't dive too deep into the supporting characters, or even the actual politics of what's going on, offering just enough information to keep viewers from feeling too confused - but that seems rather intentional. Miss Bala is, after all, Gloria's story.
Both Dunnet-Alcocer's script and Hardwicke's directing consistently depict events from Gloria's perspective as much as possible. From the confusion in the nightclub in the first act, all the way to the climactic moments of the movie, the audience experiences the events of Miss Bala right along with Gloria, seeing what she sees, knowing what she knows and learning what she learns when she learns it. This allows for Dunnet-Alcocer's story to offer up some exciting twists, pulling the rug out from under Gloria and the audience at the same time. It also makes way for Hardwicke to bring incredibly visceral action scenes to life. Hardwicke may not be known for her skill in directing action sequences, but she proves herself adept at the art with Miss Bala, using camera perspective to disorient the viewer in a wild firefight or focusing in on key moments amid the action. It's an altogether entertaining ride.
Of course, because Miss Bala focuses almost exclusively on Gloria's perspective, Rodriguez is tasked with shouldering much of the heavy lifting in the film. However, considering her star turn on Jane the Virgin (for which she won a Golden Globe in 2015), the actress has proved herself capable of leading a production. In the case of Miss Bala, the movie allows Rodriguez to flex her dramatic muscles, depicting Gloria's transformation from a woman wholly out of her depth in the world of La Estrella to someone who becomes empowered by her mission. Rodriguez is complemented well by Córdova, who embodies the charming, but incredibly dangerous Lino. Their dynamic throughout the film is tense and mesmerizing to watch, depicting a fraught relationship between Gloria and Lino. As for the rest of the cast, Mackie brings his special brand of charm to the film, but Miss Bala doesn't give anyone other than Rodriguez and Córdova much time to truly shine. Thankfully, the pair are strong enough to lead the film.
Ultimately, Miss Bala offers a tense and thrilling ride through Gloria's experience in the world of the Mexican drug cartel as she attempts to find a way to escape with the only family she has left. It isn't necessarily a highbrow drama and veers more towards action-thriller territory, but Miss Bala knows exactly what it wants to be: a story about a woman finding her power despite being thrust into a world filled with men who want to manipulate her and use her as a tool for their own purposes. Hollywood has essentially built an entire sub-genre of action movies about men who find themselves in dangerous situations - as a result of either crossing the wrong people or, well, being crossed by the wrong people - and having to fight their way out. However, rarely do action movies like this center a female protagonist, but Miss Bala does.
As a result, Miss Bala is worth checking out for any moviegoers looking for an entertaining action-thriller - or fans of Hardwick and Rodriguez who want to catch their latest project. However, it's by no means a must-see. The movie may have had more potential as a streaming release, with a lower barrier of entry. Still, Miss Bala is a fascinating character study and provides some cool, stylish action to boot. It's by no means the perfect action movie, and does sometimes veer a little too much into melodrama. Further, the world outside Gloria's point of view is underdeveloped to the point of being distracting at times, but that seems to be the intention of Dunnet-Alcocer. All in all, the story of Miss Bala is compelling and, thanks to Hardwicke's directing and Rodriguez's performance, it's easy to become invested in Gloria's tale, making for an entertaining time at the movies.
Miss Bala is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 104 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for sequences of gun violence, sexual and drug content, thematic material, and language.
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- Miss Bala (2019) release date: Feb 01, 2019