News of a U.S. adaptation of the critically well-received Mexican drama Miss Bala (2011) should have arrived with unease, considering the eight-year span between the cultural politics of then and those of today. Hollywood’s relationship with the U.S.-Mexico border is historically ugly. More often than not the sub-genre of cartel thrillers portray the border as a place of death and lawlessness, a dystopian playground of violent cartels. Such a perception naturally goes hand-in-hand with right-wing rhetoric.
Cartel thrillers in 2019 will be intensely scrutinized, and it’ll take more than improvement in representation to change the way popular American cinema considers the Mexican border. Despite boasting a cast and crew comprised of 95 percent Latin Americans (and a handful of Latinos) – praiseworthy on its own terms – it’s evident that the new Miss Bala is an anglicized story, a mainstream narcoland action movie with an artificially empowered female lead as its selling point.
Miss Bala follows Gina Rodriguez’s Gloria in what is presumably the worst week (or so) of her life. A California native, Gloria travels to Tijuana to offer moral support and her services as a professional makeup artist to her beauty pageant contestant best friend, Suzu (Cristina Rodlo). A night out with the goal of schmoozing up to the pageant stakeholder chief of police erupts into all-out mayhem when Suzu is kidnapped by cartel traffickers following a shootout at the nightclub. One bad encounter with a shady cop and suddenly Gloria is forcibly recruited by a competing gang in exchange for help from its smooth-talking leader, Lido.
Miss Bala marks Gina Rodriguez’s first leading role in a feature film. As a woman caught in the crosshairs of cartel warfare, betrayed by corrupt local authorities, used and abandoned by DEA agents, then thrown back and forth amongst these groups as an object to be exploited – sexually, as well as for her privileges as a U.S. citizen – Rodriguez owns the role. Best known for Twilight and Thirteen, director Catherine Hardwicke takes Gloria’s perspective as the experiential focus of the film, keeping her camera fixed on her leading lady’s expression through persistent close-ups. Employing a concoction of dread, panic, and guts, Rodriguez shuffles through emotions with the voltage of a seasoned action star, and Hardwicke does well to accentuate Gloria’s dramatic tumult as she endures an onslaught of unexpected accidents and risky demands.
Puerto Rican actor Ismael Cruz Cordova is a welcome screen presence alongside Rodriguez, not least of all because of his baby blue eyes, nearly confidence-inspiring in their clarity. As charming as he is threatening, Lino is written as the most conscientious of his crew of laughably leather-clad brutish underlings. His intentions would otherwise seem hard to read were he not the unscrupulous leader of a violent terrorist organization. Accordingly, I couldn’t help but find Cordova’s admittedly distracting good looks to work in the service of fetishizing the cartel lifestyle. Scenes such as a date-like detour to Lino’s favorite roadside barbacoa spot felt confused, working to soften our attitudes towards him in such a way that felt too obvious in its emotional manipulation. Are we to entertain a mutually romantic connection between Gloria, the detained, and Lido, the abuser?
Unintentionally muddled relationships are rooted in thin characterization: Gloria is singularly driven by her love of Suzu, while Lido is cryptic and cat-like in his hunger for power. The rest of the world is a stock character, giving our leads relative depth – though any potential for conclusive emotional probing is quashed when Gloria finds vindication by proving she’s a badass and a talented shooter. The blithe entry of the CIA as some sort of superhero recruitment organization at this point adds insult to injury, considering its notorious history of involvement in the region.
While promoting the film, Rodriguez expressed the hope that Miss Bala could be the next Black Panther or Crazy Rich Asians, but for Latinx audiences. Suffice it to say Hardwick’s reboot does very little in terms of busting stereotypes and paving the way for more nuanced stories about Latino communities. Miss Bala doesn’t purport to be particularly meaningful aside from its ankle-deep message of feminine endurance, and while the action and rapid-fire pace should be enough to keep your attention, the film seems to insist on being nothing more than a mediocre thriller.