Hollywood spectaculars are popular the world over not just because of their slick production values, gorgeous movie stars, or cutting-edge special effects; they're popular because they're imbued with a distinctly American form of optimism: No matter what hurdles lie before the hero, be they killer robots, machine-gun-toting mobsters, or the resident high school mean girl, she will through smarts, cunning, and luck master her fate and end up triumphant. Movies like Gerardo Naranjo's grim, virtuoso thriller "Miss Bala" is a sharp reminder of just how much this Hollywood convention is little more than a cruel joke on millions of the poor and the powerless.
The movie focuses on Laura (Stephanie Sigman), a leggy beauty who lives in a rundown little house at the edge of Tijuana along with her father and younger brother. Like any lass blessed with looks but not wealth, she has ambitions to better herself, which include entering the Miss Baja California pageant, alongside her best friend Suzu. When she later follows Suzu into a low-rent dance club populated by sleazy DEA agents, Laura finds herself in the middle of a gang hit. The next morning, when she approaches a cop to inquire about the fate of her friend, he drives her straight to the La Estrella, the thugs who perpetrated the attack. The gang leader, Lino, takes an unfortunate shine to her, and promises her the crown of Miss Baja if she does a few errands for him, like smuggle a pile of money across the border. Of course, once ensnared by the gang of Neanderthals with machine guns, Laura really doesn't have much of a choice.
Perhaps because I watched this movie right after watching Steven Soderbergh's "Haywire," I kept hoping that Laura would make some daring escape. But she's not endowed with superhuman strength or fists of fury. Instead, she behaves the way just about anyone might with a gun pointed at their head: She cowers.
Critics have called this film a noir, the brooding genre that rose in reaction to America's suffocating postwar optimism. Yet with movies like "Detour" and "Sunset Boulevard," the protagonist's descent into hell was caused by some moral lapse. In this movie, Laura's downfall was caused by trying to do the right thing in a world driven mad by corruption, criminals, and a vicious drug war that's claimed 36,000 people in the past five years.