Female empowerment is a complicated journey for any filmmaker to tackle because there is no one way to define or to interpret an empowered woman. When James Cameron called “Wonder Woman” an “objectified icon,” Patty Jenkins fired back by saying, “I believe women can and should be EVERYTHING, just like male lead characters should be. There is no right and wrong kind of powerful woman.”
Jenkins was right: Empowerment isn’t about looks or physical strength; it’s about who a woman is, and who she ends up becoming. Portraying that journey, while also trying to make a film about the Latinx community (a historically overlooked demographic in Hollywood cinema), becomes an extraordinarily difficult task for director Catherine Hardwicke in “Miss Bala.” She’s game for the challenge of remaking the 2011 Mexican film but doesn’t quite get there, mostly because of the underwritten characters, and a few confusing relationships that are mismatched for the messages that screenwriter Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer tries to convey.
Taking the premise of the original movie about political corruption and its relationship to beauty pageants in Mexico, Hardwicke and Dunnet-Alcocer reconceive the story to fit a more Americanized narrative, putting Gloria (Gina Rodriguez), a Mexican-born but LA-raised woman, at the center of the story. Gloria is a makeup artist who heads to Tijuana to visit and support her friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo), who is competing in the Miss Baja California beauty pageant.
The women have a night out so that Suzu can network with pageant executives; when the nightclub is invaded and shot up by a Mexican cartel, Gloria escapes, but Suzu is nowhere to be found. Gloria quickly learns how deep police corruption goes in Mexico and finds herself held captive by cartel leader Lino (Ismael Cruz Córdova, “Mary Queen of Scots”). With her friend missing, her life in danger, and not knowing who to trust, Gloria embarks down a path that will leave her changed forever.
While “Miss Bala” should be commended for having a cast and crew that is over 95% Latinx on a film about Latinos, most of characters are still drug traffickers, gang members, and killers. And while Dunnet-Alcocer tries to give Lino some humanity, with a backstory to explain why he chose the cartel life — like many Latinx in the United States, Lino never feels entirely at home on either side of the border — the script forgets to give Gloria the same consideration. She is defined exclusively by her relationship to Suzu, with nothing to grow from besides the trauma Lino puts her through.
Besides Suzu’s younger brother, every other character is a gang member, a corrupt politician, an abused woman, or someone who has been bought off in one way or another. The film tries to offer some balance by having three of the non-Latinx characters also be immoral and shady, but since these characters aren’t seen for more than a few minutes — whereas we see multiple scenes of Mexicans being awful — it feels like a consolation prize rather than an attempt at evening the playing field.
The mixed messages continue in how the two main characters are connected. The heavy sexual tension between Gloria and Lino comes off as fairly creepy, considering he’s her captor. One could argue that tension stems from the overall attractiveness of Rodriguez and Cruz Córdova, but there’s more going on than just that.
Hardwicke includes several specific scenes that intentionally lead the audience to believe that romantic and sexual feelings exist between a woman held hostage and her abuser. In the era of #MeToo, and the knowledge that comes from listening to survivors of abuse and violence, this portrayal is very misleading and raises an ethical question regarding the ongoing presentation of violence against women on film.
Though the action sequences and pacing move well, and cinematographer Patrick Murguia (“Low Winter Sun”) definitely leans his camera into the “female gaze,” what’s most disappointing about Hardwicke’s remake is how it compares to the original film. The original was directed by a man (Gerardo Naranjo), and unlike the remake, it took care in making sure the audience knew that Gloria was without a doubt an innocent victim. Hardwicke’s “Miss Bala,” on the other hand, is a classic example of putting a woman through traumatic events only to change her into a gun-wielding heroine. What this new version forgets, to its detriment, is that Gloria’s strength doesn’t come from finally holding the gun; it comes from being a survivor.