Back in 2011 a Mexican action thriller was released that had the potential to earn Oscar buzz. It almost did but failed to make the short list of Academy Awards considerations for the Best Foreign-Language Film category, but it earned enough popularity to get an American remake because of course we couldn’t let it stand on its own merit. That film was “Miss Bala” and the English language remake was released this weekend with a reportedly 95% Latino cast and crew bringing it to life. Since it’s the only major release this weekend contending with the carryovers from January I decided to give “Miss Bala” a chance. Does this film offer a worthy action-packed thriller experience or is it further proof that not every product deserves the American treatment? Let’s find out. This is my review of “Miss Bala”.
“Miss Bala” focuses on Los Angeles makeup artists Gloria (Gina Rodriquez) who travels to Mexico to see her close friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) who is preparing for an upcoming beauty pageant. Both girls find their way to a dance club where Suzu hopes to meet the local Chief of Police to better her chances in the pageant. Gloria witnesses a group of men called Las Estrellas sneak into the club led by drug lord Lino (Ismael Cruz Córdova). Despite being given the opportunity to escape before a shootout commences Gloria refuses to leave without Suzu but is unable to locate her friend before the massacre. When Gloria tries to go to the police about the shooting and seek answers to Suzu’s disappearance she is kidnapped by Lino’s men who offer to help find Suzu if Gloria helps them smuggle drugs and commit acts of terror. This leads Gloria to become the target of the DEA putting her smack dab in the middle of a war where she is unsure who to trust as she continues to seek answers to her friend’s disappearance.
“Miss Bala” is about as basic as an action thriller can get these days. The whole film screams cliché and that’s basically all it is, a collection of clichés. Let’s starts with the characters and while I commend the film for trying to embrace diversity by hiring mostly Latino and Latina actors there’s really nothing here for them to work with. Gina Rodriguez is the star of the show and I’m pretty mixed on how she manages her time in the spotlight. Don’t get me wrong I think she’s a great actress and she’s proven that time and time again in movies like “Annihilation” and “Deepwater Horizon”. However, in “Miss Bala” she really has nothing to work with. I give her credit for at least trying to find some substance in an otherwise bland and forgettable script and screenplay. She emotes well and she does capture the chaos going on in Gloria’s head as she finds herself in the literal crossfire of a conflict she didn’t choose to be a part of, but as much as this movie tries to make Rodriquez an action badass there’s just not enough here to support that. There are moments where Rodriguez manages to be the best part of the film. Her reactions to deaths and her struggle with who to trust at least add some compelling characteristics to her character, but by the end of the movie her transformation from victim to strong-willed warrior feels convoluted, rushed and insincere. It’s not believable and I think that’s the problem with most of this movie. But we’ll get to that.
Although I give Rodriguez credit for being the most watchable aspect of this film (she’s clearly trying) there’s nothing here to really support her or her character’s journey. None of the other performers feel sincere or inventive despite the screenplay trying to present them as layered individuals. The main antagonist Lino, played by Ismael Cruz Córdova, is one of the most forgettable villains I’ve seen on screen in a while which is made even more depressing by the fact that the script does try to give him some depth. There are moments when Lino shows a bit of humanity and shares his story with Gloria, but as much as Córdova tries to sell it these moments of intimacy are so quick and feel so scripted that it makes it near impossible to invest in Lino or see any sort of redeeming quality about him. This is a problem that permeates the whole movie, especially the performers, as no one really stands out, no one feels genuine and the stakes never feel very high because you know how this is all going to play out and the characters give us no reason to hope for any other outcome than what we inevitably receive.
I will give “Miss Bala” this, it has an interesting concept and it does at least try to take a few chances even if they are few and far between. There are shades of more intriguing concepts hidden in the narrative including the idea of Stockholm syndrome, female empowerment and commentary of the hidden humanity behind supposed villains of society but none of them are explored near enough to make any impact on the quality of the film overall. There are also some powerful moments, especially one specific death scene, that put Gloria in the unfortunate position of realizing lives were ended because of her decisions even if her choices were made for self-preservation. There’s this overarching theme of “what would you do to survive and protect the people you love” and how self-preservation can lead to consequences for other innocent people which is an interesting theme that I think could have been explored so much more heavily in this film. I can’t say there weren’t a few times where I felt the movie took an unexpected turn that could have been truly shocking and effective in a better film. Sadly everything “Miss Bala” has going for it is overshadowed and/or downplayed by bland writing and characters and an overall predictable narrative. From what I know about the original, a film I admittedly did not see but I did read about, the Mexican version takes more chances whereas the American version is clearly reworked to provide a happy ending this kind of story doesn’t necessarily need especially if it wants to stand out.
But for all the criticism I could give this movie, from its lazy writing so its bland script, predictable story and lack of any real effective action, it all comes down to one fact above all else: this movie is just plain BORING!!!! And I don’t mean that art-house movie kind of boring where the film isn’t meant to be fun, it’s meant to be significant. I mean this movie, an action thriller that involves shootouts, drug money and female empowerment, is so predictable and bland that I checked out halfway through the first act and didn’t miss a dang thing. Let me put it to you this way. I was alone in the theater (yes I had the whole place to myself) and I spent more time on my phone than I did actually investing in this film. I saw every twist and turn coming. Worst of all, even when the film did try something interesting it failed to keep my attention because the rest of the picture is just so bland. Now granted this actually makes “Miss Bala” a semi-watchable movie because it’s a nice waste of time if you’re not looking for any sort of complexity or originality. If you just want to see a B or C level action remake then be my guest, to each their own. Otherwise there’s nothing here. Nothing new, no substance, and even the good ideas are downplayed in favor of what Hollywood thinks we all want to see these days. A lot of movies make this mistake and many of them are very good because they take the action to a new level or own their clichés through self-awareness of careless fun. But not “Miss Bala”. It settles for being only what it needs to be to fill its run time and lacks inspiration, conviction or any sort of, well, life to make it even remotely engaging. It’s just plain bland.
While “Miss Bala” should be commended for trying to break down barriers by incorporating a mostly Latino cast and crew, that’s pretty much the only thing it has going for it. Despite some of the performers giving it their best effort, there’s just nothing here for anyone to work with. “Miss Bala” is one of the most bland and uninspired action thrillers I’ve seen in year. Sure it tries some interesting things from time to time, but on the whole this is a by-the-books action piece that is surprisingly light on action. The idea is fun, the lead actress is a capable performer and, like I said, there are shades of a more inspired project that takes some risks. But none of that potential is realized as “Miss Bala” settled for being only what it needs to be and nothing more. I know I’m being harsh here but let me explain something. We’ve seen a few bad movies so far in 2019, like “Replicas” and “Serenity”, but at least they presented some kind of inspiration making them almost so bad they’re good. “Miss Bala” only gives what it needs to without trying to offer something unique, which may be an arguable bidder sin than at least trying something even if it doesn’t work. This is a primary example of how sometimes it’s alright to take a chance and own it even if it fails because otherwise you get something like “Miss Bala”, a bland, forgettable product that fails to justify its own existence.