The new action movie Miss Bala is steeped in three kinds of sentiment that all generate contemporary political interest: Mexican-immigrant controversy, feminist distress, and Hollywood patronization.
Miss Bala’s story of an American Latina make-up artist, Gloria Fuentes (Gina Rodriguez), who visits a beauty-contestant friend in Mexico and then gets abducted by a drug cartel, copies a Mexican film of the same name by Gerardo Naranjo that was a 2011 Oscar submission. This remake is the sort of claptrap that used to be called a B-movie, or a straight-to-video release, yet its half-seriousness falls just short of nonsense.
Director Catherine Hardwicke (best known for Twilight, the only watchable entry in the teenage-vampire franchise) inadvertently reveals some of the myths behind purely emotional arguments about the border.
Gloria is told “You weren’t hired to think” by a prissy fashionista, but below-the-border misfortune requires that she drop her American-girl naïveté and fight for her life and personal identity.
Living the lie of California’s ethnic half-world, where the promise of “diversity” masks inequality (she’s felt the discomfort of being called “gringa”), chunky Gloria endures the second-class status of being cute but not pretty and finds an unexpected soulmate in the Los Estrellos cartel’s young drug lord, Lino (Ismael Cruz Córdova), a green-eyed teen-idol type with pillow lips, who expresses a border-crosser’s ache: “I never felt like I belong anywhere. Too gringo to be Mexican, too Mexican to be gringo.”
These misfits are Hardwicke’s new Twilight lovebirds. Gloria and Lino’s propinquity represents a liberal fairy tale — and their uneasy rapport illustrates an open-borders, multicultural eroticism when he wraps a money belt around her torso. Hardwicke’s sentimentality touches several cultural, sociological tender spots but is insufficient to provide political or moral depth.
The terror and heartlessness associated with the drug trade, sex trafficking, and illegal migration are shown in trite, exploitation-movie terms. Gloria witnesses a battle between Los Estrellas and the Drug Enforcement Agency that Hardwicke depicts using the p.o.v. of a launch grenade, transforming the audience’s sympathy into insensitivity.
Consider that Hollywood’s proximity to the U.S.–Mexican border has inspired a subgenre full of social and political myths of varying seriousness, yet they are all part of the way we are encouraged to think about the relationship between the U.S.A. and the countries below its southern border.
Miss Bala shows the U.S.–Mexico closeness that is represented by the border wall between San Diego and Tijuana (known as a metropolitan conurbation). This particular fence is practically a fabled site. (It’s part of the Secure Fence Act of 2006, completed in 2010 and exempt from Nancy Pelosi’s recent “immoral” accusation.) It hosts the ambivalences of privilege and guilt that have been featured in Hollywood’s best border dramas — from Bordertown (1935), Hold Back the Dawn (1941), Border Town (1949), Borderline (1950), Where Danger Lives (1950), Touch of Evil (1958), The Border (1981), and The Long Goodbye (1973) to James L. Brooks’s underrated yet emotionally and ideologically satisfying Spanglish (2004).
That “We don’t pay you to think” insult comes back to haunt Hardwicke when Gloria is manipulated by a blond DEA agent (“You’re on your own”) and then tricked by him (“I’ll feed you to the U.S. prison system”). This simple-minded anti-American shtick, complete with a good-guy black CIA agent played by Anthony Mackie (so familiar that the audience hooted) is worthy of Ava DuVernay, not the director who made the fine, culturally authentic skateboarding film Lords of Dogtown.
Hardwicke finds her mettle when Lino also tricks Gloria into winning the Miss Baja California pageant as a ruse to assassinate a rival cartel leader. It’s the most dreaded coronation scene since De Palma’s Carrie, and Hardwicke hits the female-exploitation angle with a soft touch (each glamazon loser throws daggers at plain-Jane Gloria). But then Hardwicke highlights Gloria’s proficiency with an AR-15 rifle. “Made in the U.S.A.,” Gloria smirks — her cynical vengeance eventually dumps on the Carrie homage. It must be said that Olivier Megaton and Luc Besson accomplished this kind of action movie with greater intelligence and panache in the Zoe Saldana vehicle Colombiana.
Miss Bala (the title corrupts “Baja” into “bullet”) is not as bad as Widows or as humane as The Mule. Its insistence on Sisterhood even over adolescent romance and immigration policy cheapens the ironies of conurbation and Hollywood’s long-standing sentiments about multiculturalism, which used to transcend the U.S.–Mexican border in egalitarian spirit while respecting it as lawful necessity.