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Review: ‘Miss Bala’ is an uncommon display of a woman’s fortitude (Includes first-hand account)

A strong female lead doesn’t have to be a well-trained, lethal weapon ready to strike at any moment. She doesn’t need to be muscular or look a certain way. And she doesn’t have to be fighting her enemy every minute to demonstrate her resilience – or overcoming a sexual assault for that matter. As fear can easily overwhelm patience, sometimes biding one’s time requires more courage than jumping at the first opportunity for escape or retaliation. There’s more than one way to become a survivor or prevail under seemingly impossible circumstances. In Miss Bala, a young woman is swept up into a Mexican gang war and does what she must to stay alive.

Gloria (Gina Rodriguez) spent part of her childhood in Tijuana, where she met her best friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo). Now a professional make-up artist, Gloria returns to Mexico to help her friend in a local beauty pageant. However, while rubbing elbows at a high-profile club, someone tries to assassinate the police chief. Gloria is separated from Suzu and suddenly finds herself in the grips of notorious gang leader, Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova). Forced into servitude to save herself and hopefully Suzu, she becomes the unlikely accomplice to a series of murders and the involuntary companion of a lonely criminal.

The trailer shows a movie about a badass woman who is kicking butt and taking names, as per the Hollywood definition of heroine. However, most of those scenes are taken from select sections of the film and are not reflective of the actual narrative. Gloria spends a lot of time gritting her teeth and taking orders from Lino, who promises her survival and help finding Suzu. The stakes and, subsequently, her loyalty are heightened when the gang learns about her godson and easily leverage his life to control her behaviour too.

Gloria makes a lot of tough decisions over the course of her captivity. Whether it’s to run or aide her kidnappers, each choice is the result of a quick risk calculation. Lino sees something familiar in her, so he protects her from his less-accommodating associates — though she’s also aware that he’ll kill her the instant he senses any treachery. Nonetheless, the way he treats her with a mix of aggression and kindness is confusing and somewhat blurs the lines at times. Gloria never underestimates Lino, but his attempts to convince her the other side is worse than him starts to work and puts her in an even more dangerous position.

There are a lot of factors at play and Rodriguez reacts to all of them authentically. Whether she’s pleading for her life, pulling herself together or lashing out, it feels like she’s in the moment. This is obviously a giant leap from her mild-mannered TV role, but she steps up to the challenge and embraces the opportunity to play a Latin-American protagonist on the big screen. Cordova is also very convincing, but it’s his icy blue eyes that draw audience’s attention during close-ups. His cordial appearance is the mask of a killer who recognizes his assets. Anthony Mackie and Matt Lauria also have small roles in the film, though their characters significantly affect Gloria’s decisions.

Based on a 2011 Spanish-language film of the same name, director Catherine Hardwicke resists the Hollywood machine enough to let Gloria survive her way. Her turn to violence happens organically — but before that, she’s just a woman doing what she must save herself and her loved ones.

Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Starring: Gina Rodriguez, Ismael Cruz Cordova and Ricardo Abarca

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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