2019, PG-13, 104 min. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Starring Gina Rodriguez, Cristina Rodlo, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Ricardo Abarca, Matt Lauria, Anthony Mackie.
REVIEWED By Danielle White, Fri., Feb. 1, 2019
Catherine Hardwicke is likely best known as the director of the first Twilight movie, but she cut her teeth in Hollywood production design (Tank Girl, Vanilla Sky), and before that she majored in architecture at UT. Her latest film, Miss Bala, has a similarly obscured history.
It’s a “remake” of a 2011 Mexican drama (which was based on a real-life story) and the major difference between the first Miss Bala and this Miss Bala is that the main character, Gloria (Rodriguez, Jane the Virgin), has a bit more agency – oh, hello, 2019. She’s working in L.A. as a makeup artist, a regular everywoman eating shit at work like the rest of us and feeling pretty insignificant against the day-to-day shuffle. A weekend trip to Tijuana, her hometown, to help her friend Suzu (Rodlo) prepare for the Miss Baja California beauty pageant changes all that. The women are separated after witnessing a shooting in a nightclub, and Gloria is kidnapped by the leader of a cartel, Lino (Cordova), who promises to help get her friend back if she does a few things for him. NBD, right? As you may have guessed, things don’t exactly go as planned, and Gloria is (literally) caught in the cross-fire between gang members and law enforcement. Meanwhile, she’s determined to find her friend. Whatever it takes.
Hardwicke has a way of telling stories that morph borderline sociopaths into charmers: I’m thinking specifically of mopey vampire Edward, but even Thirteen’s Evie qualifies, and Lino fits right in with that bunch. He’s a very bad man, but he’s characterized in a way that is a little too humanizing for comfort – he’s well-spoken and handsome and downright gentlemanly with Gloria (in a way that detracts from any sense of authenticity). At one point, he tells his associate not to grab her by the arm (although he was doing the same exact thing a few scenes before) and that’s how we know he “respects” women – except we know he doesn’t; it’s just this one, so she must be special.
As things are chugging along, it feels fairy tale-esque, like Beauty and the Beast crossed with a telenovela. Yet there’s this very real-world cynicism that wants to show us that the drug bosses are just as dirty as the cops, and we’re all guilty of perpetuating violence against innocents (on that note, quit buying cocaine already). With thriller pacing and the aerial shots of a generic action film, Miss Bala is a ride. There are times when it’s funny. There are also times when it beats you over the head with context clues. When the action ramps up, the over-the-top music score seems to stomp its foot and say, “Something is hap-pen-ing!” Certain plot points are overemphasized. It veers toward parody. But it’s also satisfying to see the outcome. At the beginning of the film, Rodriguez comes to the role with hints of Jane the Virgin’s naivete and her 1,000-watt smile. She constantly has to make choices, and some of them are kinda repulsive. It’s interesting that “I only do what I have to do to survive” is a phrase used by Lino the drug lord, yet it keeps being applied to Gloria. As if that makes it okay. Yet that’s when the film achieves the closest thing to verisimilitude: It’s complicated.
For an interview with the director, read Catherine Hardwicke Unloads With Miss Bala," Feb. 1.