Miss Bala: Female-Led Action/Thriller Needs More Clarity... and Maybe Shorter Heels

By Kim Hughes

Rating: B-

Ever watch a film closely and still have no idea what it’s trying to say? That’s the disconcerting vibe from Miss Bala, director Catherine Hardwicke’s remake of the 2011 Mexican thriller about a beautiful young woman blackmailed into helping a vicious gang move stuff across the U.S./Mexico border.

Setting aside its unfortunate timing at precisely the moment American/Mexican political relations are at a terrible low, the film also trades in troubling stereotypes. You could be forgiven for expecting the members of latter-day Genesis to show up in ponchos and glued-on moustaches wailing disconcertingly about how it’s no fun being an illegal alien.

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The premise is interesting enough, though. Gloria (Gina Rodriguez, good and very watchable), a makeup artist from L.A., visits her friend Suzu in Tijuana. Unfortunately, the pair visit a nightclub on the very evening a guerrilla gang decides to do its worst. Suzu and Gloria are both snatched, with Gloria quickly put to work on threat of Suzu’s potential murder. Of course, Suzu has an adorable and precocious son of the sort that only ever shows up in the movies but the fact underscores Gloria’s predicament.

Her first task is positioning a car rigged with explosives, while, of course, donning evening wear and high heels, as one does in a kidnap situation on a terrorist mission. Wardrobe choices continue to distract from the main action, undermining the film’s presumed female empowerment arc. Again, what is being said here? Chicks can be hot and cunning-slash-deadly? Thanks 1975!

What follows is Gloria’s navigation of the gang and, surreptitiously, the DEA who badly want gang leader Lino (an eerily beautiful Ismael Cruz Córdova) and his rogue lot. It’s no spoiler to reveal that everyone involved on both sides of the law is essentially bad although Miss Bala does turn the tables long enough to explore shades of grey in this nefarious underworld.

But what are we to make of Gloria’s relationship with Lino, which plays like an uneasy cross between Stockholm Syndrome and La Femme Nikita. Is Gloria a heroine or a dupe? Is the rigged beauty pageant Gloria enters and wins a wry comment on the antiquated nature of such pageants or just a concession to the original film and an easy plot device used to hasten us towards the central evil? Watching Miss Bala, it’s impossible to know.

There are white-knuckle moments, notably Gloria’s crossing of the border with a heap of stuff that would raise troubling questions were she stopped and searched. Rodriguez puts us right there in the car beside her and it’s thrilling. But the outcome arrives a bit too pat, our heroine conveniently switching from cowed hostage to arms-wielding ass-kicker with dubious ease.

There is absolutely room for female action stars in the contemporary film canon. But right now, they look more like Atomic Blondes than makeup artists from Los Angeles.

Miss Bala. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Starring Gina Rodriguez, Ismael Cruz Córdova, and Anthony Mackie. Opens wide February 1.