Miss Bala – Spoiler-Free Movie Review

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Super Bowl weekend is typically a slow one at the movies, with not many new releases willing to go up against the big game. Which has always been a little weird to me, seeing as it only takes up a Sunday afternoon – if you live on the west coast – Sunday already being the slowest of the three days, typically. Plus, plenty of people don’t care about sports, let alone football, so catering to that kind of audience at that time would seem to make a lot of sense. That’s why the biggest narrative feature opening all-time on Super Bowl weekend is 2010’s Dear John, which came right at the tail end of the Nicholas Sparks boom, as it earned $30 million in its first three days. But nope, not this year, as even though Super Bowl LIII proved to be the lowest-rated one in a decade, the only movie coming out in wide release is the Gina Rodriguez-led crime-thriller Miss Bala, a remake of a Mexican film of the same name. Regardless, it failed to drum up much interest in moviegoers, earning a paltry $6.7 million against a budget of $15 million. Needless to say it’s going to go down as a minor flop for Columbia Pictures, one that most would also be apt to forget as its quality isn’t much to sing about either. While I hadn’t actually heard of the original film before this one came out, the general consensus seems to be that it’s pretty good, one you’d hope would be getting the proper English-language treatment redux.  Unfortunately, the finished product comes off wholly uninspired, so bland and without character that I’m pretty sure one of those predictive robots wrote the script. Gina Rodriguez is able to hold her own in her first time out as a leading lady in a major feature film, but the writing is so paper thin I’m surprised she could even stay awake while reading her lines. I really don’t know who this movie is for other than fans of hers, as it’s too tame to scratch that shoot-em-up itch, too narratively rote to intrigue, and too emotionally hollow to warrant the proper investment. Say what you will about the big game being a defense-heavy snooze-fest, but Miss Bala can’t even make bullets flying seem exciting.

Miss Bala centers in on makeup artist Gloria Fuentes (Gina Rodriguez), who crosses the border into Tijuana, Mexico to visit her friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo). During a night of clubbing, gang members, led by the notorious Lino Esparza (Ismael Cruz Córdova), begin shooting up the place in an assassination attempt on the chief of police. In the scuffle, Suzu goes missing, leaving Gloria uncertain as how to find her. When she attempts to identify the suspects, she finds herself a target of the gang, and is ultimately kidnapped by them. Unwilling to simply forget about Suzu, Gloria begrudgingly begins working for Esparza, who promises Suzu’s safety in return. This however also leads her to be captured by the DEA, who threaten to lock her up for life unless she works for them as a mole in Esparza’s gang. Now being forced to play both sides, Gloria must do whatever it takes to earn both her and Suzu’s freedom.

Even though that almost sounds like a dynamic setup, much in the same way that The Departed is, Miss Bala is wholly uninterested in injecting any of its characters with any level of nuance, even its main character. Which is weird, seeing how much they’re marketing off of Gina Rodriguez’s drawing power. You’d think they’d give Gloria a concrete personality, but I know next to nothing about why she’s unique or what makes her tic. At that rate, it doesn’t really matter who you cast in the part when virtually anyone could fill those shoes. Hell, Betty White could’ve done it and it still would have had the same effect. Furthermore, much of the emotionality behind the movie is Gloria’s relationship with Suzu, which we also know next to nothing about, nor do we know why we should care about either of them. I wish I had a pocket watch with me; that way I could time how quickly the film breezes through Gloria and Suzu’s introductions before the inciting incident at the nightclub occurs. I seriously think it might only have been five minutes.

Plot-wise, this is still a dull movie. You’d think that it’d at least get some mileage out of the interplay between Gloria and Esparza, making you question whether he’s really the villain of the whole thing, maybe they have some chemistry, yada yada, but between the script’s half-assed attempt at a backstory and Córdova’s bad acting, Miss Bala doesn’t get very far in the writing department. Even the addition of the DEA to the story is so slapped-on and unconvincing that it can’t help but scream missed opportunity – which is probably already giving it more credit than it deserves. There are several scenes devoted to making the Americans seem just as uncaring and corrupt, but the characters drawn are so two-dimensional it hardly gives the proceedings the kind of flavor it should.

The film is directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who most people would know for doing the first Twilight movie and setting the tone for the franchise. While I don’t like Miss Bala to any degree, it actually has to be my favorite film of hers, there being little competition between that one and the tonally similar but arguably more infuriating Red Riding Hood. Point being, she hasn’t done a whole lot since those two, the latter coming out in 2011, and while Miss Bala is a begrudgingly welcome departure from that kind of self-serious, teen fantasy trash, it doesn’t really bode well for her as a filmmaker going forward. While the lazy script has to be the biggest offender, Hardwicke doesn’t exactly take advantage of the genre either and deliver something that is at least stupidly entertaining. While I wouldn’t go out and label Miss Bala as an action movie forthright, it does provide enough set-pieces for a director to put their stamp on the material and at least get creative. Sufficient to say, that does not happen, as they’re staged just as flatly and just as uninspired.

All that said, Miss Bala never becomes totally terrible either, even though it could at essentially every moment. In short, it is so committed to being mediocre, that it can’t even be bothered to enter so-bad-it’s-good territory. At least the Super Bowl had the decency of being tied halfway through the fourth quarter. This movie doesn’t have the decency to do much of anything.

Final Score: 3/10

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