‘Miss Bala’ Throws Gina Rodriguez Across the Border Into a Narco Fantasy
“Miss Bala” should help make a new saying popular in the studio conference rooms, “if it’s already good, don’t remake it.” It’s a reimagining of an excellent 2011 Mexican film by Gerardo Naranjo of the same name, which told the story of a working class woman hoping to get into a local beauty pageant, until a fateful trip to a nightclub results in her being pulled into the cartel underworld. That film was a sharp, striking commentary on the ongoing drug war and its effects on various layers of Mexican society. This new “Miss Bala” keeps the bare bones of the story and churns them into an Americanized action romp.
Gina Rodriguez plays Gloria, who works in Los Angeles as a makeup artist for modeling shows. She crosses the border into Tijuana to help her friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) get ready to try out for the Miss Baja beauty pageant. After signing up, Suzu wants to go partying and the two friends make their way to the Millennium Club, where Suzu also hopes to get close to local big shots who might have pull with the judges. But just as Gloria goes to the restroom, armed thugs appear. One of them, Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova), spares her before his men shoot up the place. But while Gloria escapes, Suzu goes missing. After making the unwise decision (in Mexico) of seeking help from the police, Gloria ends up in Lino’s grasp, who promises to help her find Suzu if she does some work for his cartel, Los Estrellas (The Stars). Of course this means she has to park car bombs, smuggle cocaine into San Diego, learn how to shoot an AK-47 and chop onions with the sex slave of Lino’s trigger-happy number two, Pollo (Ricardo Abarca). And all this before the week is out! It gets more complicated when a stone-faced DEA agent, Brian Reich (Matt Lauria), recruits Gloria to get info on Lino. Oh, and she still has to walk the runway for Miss Baja.
What a contrast between this “Miss Bala” and the original film. The 2011 movie felt like an absorbing, almost documentary experience as it followed an aspiring beauty queen played by Stephanie Sigman into the shadowy, social underbelly of the drug trade. The settings were gritty and authentic, exploring a Mexico where the poor feel trapped in a society infected by corruption. The director of this new version is Catherine Hardwicke, known for the vampire romance “Twilight” and “Thirteen,” a film about adolescence that remains her best work. She directs the material like someone who knows nothing about Mexico except through cartoonish clichés. Suzu’s house looks fit for a rom-com, complete with a scene where she and Gloria exchange friendship bracelets. The Estrellas cartel, which is quite small for such a ruthless outfit, look like hipster rejects from “Sons of Anarchy.” In the original film Noé Hernández played Lino as an older, convincingly threatening criminal, obviously pulled from the dregs of society. He is a true predator treating Sigman like property. Here Ismael Cruz Cordova is more of a vain, rather boring douchebag, plopping on a bed and asking Gloria to take off his boots. Gina Rodriguez, of “Jane the Virgin” fame, is stuck looking worried with a trembling lip for most of the movie. A pity since Rodriguez has some good movies under her belt, including last year’s vastly underrated “Annihilation.”
Much of the material feels so goofy and tame, as if Hardwicke were afraid of exploring the heart of darkness of the original. There are odd attempts to sanitizing the material that fail spectacularly. Gloria is horrified to see Lino execute another girl accused of being a snitch, but afterwards he takes her out for barbecue and tacos, reminiscing about how life dealt him a bad hand when he and his mother were deported from California. You see, he had no choice but to become a murderous drug smuggler to survive and maybe one day buy this barbecue place he loves so much. Later Lino will again show the kindness buried somewhere within and teach Gloria how to use a machine gun. He obviously likes her, but the script never convincingly explores this angle to the story. It would rather focus on boring shootouts and half-baked plotting. Latinx audience members might chuckle from some of the Spanish dialogue, like when a kitchen fire results in Lino complaining, “you ruined my pozole fool!”
“Miss Bala” has nothing meaningful or insightful to say about the situation in Mexico, instead it becomes a confusing, violent ramble by the third act. Gloria is made by Reich to switch chips around cell phones belonging to Lino and his crew in a way that gets more confusing than it should. Anthony Mackie pops in with a role that seems to have no reason for being until the end, when he drops a plot reveal involving the CIA that becomes very ludicrous. Scenes which in the original movie had a quiet tension are turned into raving recycles of every shootout we see every year in bad crime films. Consider the nightclub attack where Gloria meets Lino. In the Naranjo film a brilliant tracking shot of our heroine in the bathroom shows us just enough of the arriving assassins to hint that something dark is underway, they are ominous figures in the background. When Lino first sees Sigman we only see his weapon in the frame. But Hardwicke turns it into a typical shoot out with loud explosions, flashy lights and little sense of dread or surprise. The same goes with the final shootout of the film, involving a corrupt general Gloria is offered to as a sexual prize. In the original movie the scene has a Hitchcockian intensity. Here it devolves into a hilariously crazy action scene where Gloria soon emerges from the flames, in a red dress, in full action heroine pose.
But what does any of this have to do with beauty pageants? The 2011 film used the beauty pageant angle as a commentary on how the drug trade has infected various sections of Mexico. In 2019 Gloria doesn’t even want to be a contestant, Lino makes her sign up to later on get close to a specific target. Once the night of the competition of arrives, Lino proves to be quite the classy sicario and offers Gloria advice on how to smile and walk down the runway. During all of this there is little sense of time. It seems like all this has befallen on poor Gloria in a span of about five days. Anything is possible we can suppose.
If there is a true value to “Miss Bala” it’s that it may serve as a great film school tool to demonstrate what happens when Hollywood takes a foreign film about a specific time and place then transforms it into quick consumption entertainment. Many rounds are spent in this film, a few cars explode, and Gina Rodriguez becomes a version of The Punisher by the end, which feels like a set-up for an even more absurd sequel. Do yourself a favor and stream or rent the original.
“Miss Bala” premieres Feb. 1 in theaters nationwide.