Catherine Hardwicke, Drama, Drug cartel, Gina Rodriguez, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Las Estrellas, Mexico, Remake, Review, Thriller, Tijuana
D: Catherine Hardwicke / 104m
Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Matt Lauria, Cristina Rodlo, Ricardo Abarca, Damián Alcázar, Aislinn Derbez, Anthony Mackie
Gloria Fuentes (Rodriguez) is a make up artist living and working in Los Angeles. She takes a trip to Tijuana in Mexico to see her best friend, Suzu (Rodlo). Suzu is planning to enter the Miss Baja California beauty contest, and that night she and Gloria go to a club where Suzu aims to impress one of the contest’s supporters, Chief of Police Saucedo (Alcázar). However, armed gunmen attempt to kill Saucedo and in the ensuing confusion, Gloria and Suzu are separated. The next morning, and still unable to find Suzu, Gloria seeks help from a policeman. But instead of taking her to the nearest police station, he hands her over to Lino (Cordova), the leader of Las Estrellas, the drug cartel responsible for the attack on Chief Saucedo. Lino tells Gloria he will help her find Suzu, but what this means in reality is that she will have to work for Las Estrellas first. Seizing an opportunity to escape them, Gloria winds up in the hands of the DEA and agent Brian Reich (Lauria), who blackmails her into going back and being a mole in Lino’s organisation…
Comparisons between remakes and their original predecessors is often invidious: the remake rarely makes the same impact, or has the same energy, or succeeds in the same fashion as the original did, and this is doubly so when the remake is an English language version of a foreign language movie. Such is the case with Miss Bala, a re-working of the 2011 movie of the same name that was Mexico’s submission for that year’s Oscars. There’s undoubted talent involved here – director Hardwicke has Lords of Dogtown (2005) and Twilight (2008) on her resumé, Rodriguez is best known for TV’s Jane the Virgin, and DoP Patrick Murguia lensed the under-rated The Frozen Ground (2013) – but there’s not much they can do to offset Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer’s smoothed over screenplay and its Hollywoodised approach to the basic storyline. Where the original Miss Bala had an ending that was deliberately ambiguous and suited what had gone before, here the ending is contrived and seems designed to pave the way for a TV series. It’s one of many disappointments that will frustrate viewers who have seen Gerardo Naranjo’s version and been impressed by its gritty, psychologically raw attitude. But even if you haven’t, it’s still unlikely that you’ll be singing the movie’s praises.
Part of the problem here is that Gloria is never treated badly enough for the audience to believe that she’s in any real danger. This robs the movie of any tension it may have been able to generate, and it makes Rodriguez’ job that much harder as she tries to sell the idea that Gloria is in real danger. Rodriguez does well to turn an ingenue into a bad ass by the movie’s end, but it’s a triumph that’s against the odds because everything comes so easily to the character, whether it’s learning how to shoot an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, lying convincingly to Lino (who is nowhere near as suspicious of her as he should be), or switching tracking devices in and out of mobile phones at the drop of a hat. There’s an awkward, one-sided romance between Gloria and Lino that seeks to explain the leniency with which he treats her, but it’s at odds with what else we know about the character, and just feels like a misguided attempt to provide the “bad guy” with “layers”. A handful of action scenes are dealt with in a way that could be described as “standard operating procedure” – all low angles, rapid-fire cutting, and the volume cranked up – and they offer some respite from the dreary nature of the overall plot, but they’re not enough to rescue yet another unnecessary English language remake of a much better foreign language original.
Rating: 5/10 – Rodriguez is pretty much the whole deal here, holding Miss Bala together through the sheer strength of her performance, and doing her best to make the viewer forget how homogenised and culturally indifferent it all is; with its sanitised version of a drug cartel not helping to fuel the drama, nor the idea that the DEA are more immoral and/or corrupt than said drug cartel, this isn’t a movie that has a foot in the real world, or anything to say that would make sense, or even be memorable.