Miss Bala—a ripped-from-the-headlines potboiler about a Mexican-American beauty pageant contestant caught between a Tijuana cartel and the DEA officials sworn to take it down—couldn’t have landed at a better time: to fan the flames of anti-immigrant fury engulfing that part of the U.S., to squat and drop some both-sides fertilizer on that horror show, to transform the terrifying reality of the U.S.’s current chauvinistic foreign policy into the stuff of a Lifetime Original movie, to prove just how hollow and tone-deaf most of Hollywood has a tendency to be, to make the CIA look cool by having an Avenger cameo as an agent in its closing minutes. Miss Bala is wretched, directed by Catherine Hardwicke like a late-’90s music video and written by Gareth Dunnett-Alcocer as a shoddy soap opera, but what truly makes it a harmful wide release in January 2019 is just how sloppily it shits all over any sense of nuance at a time, during a cultural moment, in which nuance is essential.
Gina Rodriguez plays Gloria Meyer, a mid-level LA makeup artist who travels to Tijuana to visit Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) to shepherd her best friend through the Miss Baja beauty pageant. Gloria peppers every conversation with dismay at her cross-cultural heritage, feeling as if she belongs neither in Los Angeles nor in Tijuana, forever an outsider. Rather than explore such alienation, we’re rushed to a nightclub, where Gloria and Suzu are inadvertently caught in the middle of an assassination attempt on Chief Saucedo (Damián Alcázar), local law enforcement official and Trump-like pageant figurehead. Suzu disappears in the fray, and Gloria’s kidnapped by the cartel behind the failed murder, told by hunky leader Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova) that if she cooperates with their nefarious doings, they’ll help her find Suzu. No sooner does Gloria escape into the clutches of the DEA, led by whitebred Agent Brian (Matt Lauria), who demonstrates such hilarious disdain for Gloria and her wellbeing that we know he won’t be long for this world. (Spoiler: He’s blown up by a grenade launcher, which is more exciting to think about than witness.) The DEA forces Gloria to be their mole inside Lino’s cartel in exchange for passage back to the U.S. and help with securing Suzu’s safety, wherever she is.
Gloria inevitably makes her way back into Lino’s good graces, bonding with him over his similar feelings of being an outsider, as he confesses—between bouts of threatening her and groping her, never quite sexually assaulting her, though Hardwicke hangs that threat over Gloria throughout the film, too ill equipped to have her character deal with the implications of such a violation and too devoted to letting the audience sympathize with her drug lord to make him all bad—that he grew up between Bakersfield, California and rural Tijuana. Once the requisite shoot-out with the DEA commences, ensuring that, yes, Agent Brian and his boys are just as shitty as their cartel foes, all the hanging plot threads coalesce in a party in which the cartel and Chief Saucedo’s goons murder each other, Gloria emerging from the gunsmoke brandishing an AR-15 and looking sexy as all get out in a blood-red gown. Forget that nearly 80 minutes was spent building to a Miss Congeniality-type climax in which Gloria would need to charm her underdog way through the pageant to win and gain VIP access to Saucedo; Lino informs her that they’ve paid off the judges, so whatever. Turns out: Everyone is evil, except the CIA, who clean up Gloria’s mess and try to recruit her through Agent Anthony Mackie in a suit. Real recognize real.
Dull action scenes do nothing to relieve the audience of the incessant torpor of Miss Bala. Gina Rodriguez, who proved in Annihilation that she’s capable of something so much more addled and kinetic than this, does what she can with such aggravating material, but everything around her insults whatever emotional depth she can mine despite what she’s given. There’s probably some validity to the idea that the cross-border drug war is perpetuated on the backs of compromised values fueling the the mutual corruption of both sides, that the U.S. is as much to blame as the sexy Linos of the world. That the CIA, then, comes to the rescue in Miss Bala betrays a complete lack of historical rigor as to what truly lies at the heart of our country’s deepest malignancies. Were the movie only a boring misstep; instead, it’s something so much more offensive, and something so much more timely in its offensiveness.
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Writer: Gareth Dunnett-Alcocer
Starring: Gina Rodriguez, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Cristina Rodlo, Damián Alcázar, Matt Lauria, Anthony Mackie
Release Date: February 1, 2019
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.