Some movies are great; they captivate your mind, heart and soul. Something about them viscerally connects with you; all of the elements fall into place so perfectly, it’s hard to criticize them for anything. Other movies are terrible; nothing about them is genuine. They’re sloppily made with poor direction and acting, or have a poorly executed story and pace, making them simply boring with nothing much to say. Still others, like the new cartel actioner, Miss Bala, fall somewhere in between; not special enough to sing its praises, but not bad enough to complain about.
Gina Rodriguez takes us on a journey of self-discovery as Gloria, a make-up artist who heads to Tijuana to help her best friend, Suzu (Christina Rodlo), compete in the Miss Baja California beauty contest only to get embroiled in a war between a cartel gang and a corrupt police commissioner. There are many things that are both good and bad about that sentence.
First is the Miss Baja California contest itself, something I instantly connected to the title of the film; so much so that, even though I understand that “bala” is Spanish for bullet, I had to wonder if the film was supposed to be called Miss Baja (which would still have made a lot of sense in the context of the film) but someone in the marketing department accidentally spelled Baja with an ‘L’, and by the time the higher-ups figured out the mistake, it was too late.
The entire beauty contest is used as the linchpin of the narrative, embedded perfectly into all of the different things that happen within the film. However, with it being such a big piece to the puzzle, director Catherine Hardwicke spends way less time with it than she should. It ultimately feels like it’s being used for convenience as opposed to being an integral part of the film. Without it, a lot of what happens would quickly fall apart, but it comes off as a red-headed step-child, forced into the background and asked to join the party only when it conveniences the plot.
Second is Gloria’s profession. I like that writer Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer used both the make-up aspect and the beauty contest to create the inciting incident that jump starts the narrative (the latter being pulled from the original film of the same name from which this based). However, because the contest plays such a small part in the film, it feels weird to give Gloria this skill only to immediately abandon that aspect of her character before the first act is out. I’d think that Dunnet-Alcocer could have found a much better, or more compatible, reason for why Gloria heads to Tijuana that would eventually play deeper into the film, and the character, itself.
Finally, we have the war between the cartel and the police chief (Damián Alcázar). On the surface, it makes sense. But as the movie digs deeper into its narrative, I never fully understood why this particular cartel wanted to destroy his administration. I believe there was an explanation in there somewhere, something about the Chief taking away all of the cartels business, but because it’s presented in such a disconnected manner, it’s hard to tell if that’s the case, or if it’s because I’m making stuff up to fill in the holes.
What makes this war all the worse is a failed attempt to shoehorn in a DEA sting, a side story that doesn’t go much of anywhere and doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the story itself. Unlike the beauty contest, if you were to remove this storyline, not a whole lot changes except for a few predictable scenes and the removal of characters that would have been better served in a different capacity (which then would have allowed the characters to be more fully developed).
What ties it all together, and makes all of it work, is Rodriguez. There’s a movie trope many cinephiles know about called a Mary Sue. For those who don’t know, a Mary Sue is a female character that automatically knows how to do everything without even a minute of training; a character that is too good to be true, making them feel unrealistic. Gloria is the exact opposite of a Mary Sue. Due to her upbringing and her profession, Gloira is the epitome of a fish-out-of-water when the cartel leader (Mikhail Plata) uses her as a pawn in his war against the fascist government figures and to transport drugs across the border in exchange for weapons.
Rodriguez does an incredible job at transforming from a meek, average woman, into someone with the confidence and the balls to do what she has to in order to find and rescue Suzu, who went missing at a party that the cartel members raid. Every moment she’s on screen is believable, and every action taken seems perfectly planned and executed. With a bit of tweaking to the script, her character might have been more fully developed, but Rodriguez uses what she’s given to create a fully-formed character that you can root for and believe in.
If Dunnet-Alcocer and Hardwicke had taken more time with the script to fashion a stronger story, the film might have lived up to the performances that hold the film together; however, if it wasn’t for Rodriguez, the film might have fallen prey to a weak script with no imagination or anything to make it stand out among the crowd. In the end, with everything mixed together, the film is the epitome of the word meh: a decent action drama that will be quickly forgotten.
My Grade: B
Next week, new movies include Cold Pursuit, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, What Men Want and The Prodigy. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.