Gina Rodriguez stars as a woman who journeys from brave bystander to kick-ass heroine; Catherine Hardwicke directs.
How does a Hollywood studio introduce younger audiences to action films, in an age where so many of the traditional stars are getting too old, and let's face it, have always been overwhelming male and white? If you're Sony, you bring together Catherine Hardwicke, the director who turned Twilight into a smash, and Gina Rodriguez, star of Jane the Virgin and Annihilation, and throw them into some Mexican soap opera-style action, espionage and crime, and you end up with a somewhat preictable, yet still highly enjoyable combination.
Miss Bala is a remake based on the 2011 Mexican film of the same name. I have no doubt that the original is far more brutal (and arguably therefore more realistic) in its depiction of violence and brutality. But a PG-13 American audience (given its lead actress, a younger audience is essential) can't really handle that kind of truth, and certainly the script waters it down. Luckily, Hardwicke is highly skilled in balancing the right amount of violence and brutality, palatable for an American audience. Pair this with Rodriguez's ability to balance a face of freshness and joy with bravery and resolution, and these two women elevate the film above what is really its action b-film roots.
Gloria (Gina Rodriguez) is a American woman of Mexican background, and a make-up artist in Los Angeles, trying to break into the fashion industry; she comes to her old home of Tijuana to help her old friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo). But after witnessing the perpetrators of a mass shooting at a club, Gloria is forced to work for Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova) and his gang of cross-border drug runners. She is dragged into their war with the DEA, and a web of murder, money, and sexual exploitation, and can trust only herself to survive.
Miss Bala gives a relatively brief yet sufficient introduction to Gloria: kind, loving, fun, smart enough to know that Suzu is letting herself get used a bit in order to get ahead, and also smart enough to know when not to interfere. She's brave enough that she's willing to identify the gunmen, and even when she's kidnapped and used by them, she knows when to keep her mouth shut.
And keep it shut she has to, a lot, as all the men around her are pretty much varying degrees of assholes. The head of the police department (and target of the club slaughter) has a liking of pretty young pageant contestants (gross, but not as crime); Lino and his gang engage in some pretty serious crimes, though at least at first it doesn't seem to include prostitution; and the DEA officer who forcibly enlists Gloria as a mole barely even listens to her and harasses her as much as the Mexican drug gang.
It doesn't take long for Gloria to figure out that, no matter what side of this she ends up on, her life is no longer her own, and she can either control how things unfold, or can let things happen to her and most likely end up dead or prostituted. So with her wits alone, she must figure out whatever needs to be done to keep herself alive and to find her friend, evem if that means metaphorically sleeping with the enemy.
Hardwicke steers clear of the more traditional (in other words, tired) techniques for filming action; instead, she makes us see it how Gloria sees it: frightening, cruel, fast and loud, with only a split-second to make life-or-death decisions. The camera is steady and filled with gorgeous imagery when Gloria's outlook is happy; when everythig falls apart, so it switches to handheld movement and more base colours and light. And Hardwicke does not shy away from a little melodrama now and then; this is a pretty insane situation, and emotions run strong and often overwhelm.
It's nice to see Rodriguez in parts such as these; not only as a Latinx heroine, but as the 'every woman': she uses the skills she has, which are attention to detail, listening, and picks up the skills she needs to get the job done and keep herself going. But when pushed, she can kick plenty of ass, and isn't afraid to take someone down if that's what they deserve.
With Hardwicke behind the camera and Rodriguez in front of it, Miss Bala rises above what in other hands would be a flaccid remake, and transform it into a woman's journey from innocent yet brave bystander to kick-ass heroine who doesn't take any shit from anyone.