Review: Bland ‘Miss Bala’ remake misses the original point
Mexico’s 2011 Oscar entry, “Miss Bala,” was a searing slice of social commentary about the raging narco wars wrapped up in a sexy, action-packed thriller.
Directed by Gerardo Naranjo, the script was ripped from the headlines, basing its beauty queen-meets-drug lord story on a stranger-than-fiction 2008 scandal, when Miss Sinaloa winner Laura Zuñiga was arrested in the company of the Juarez cartel. The tension inherent in the question of whether or not she was a victim or an operator was what drove “Miss Bala,” a tale about how easy it is to get sucked into this underworld, and how hard it is to get out.
With the combo of gun battles and pageant girls, it’s no wonder Hollywood came knocking. But achieving tonal balance between sociology and schlock is no easy task, and this film doesn’t pull it off.
Corruption and cartels
Catherine Hardwicke helms the remake of the same name, with a script by Mexican writer Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, starring the eminently appealing Gina Rodriguez as Gloria, a young Mexican-American makeup artist from Los Angeles who gets caught up in the swirl of corruption and cartels while visiting a friend who is competing in the Miss Baja California pageant.
“Bala” means bullet in Spanish, and therein lies the dark pun of the title.
Hardwicke is a talented director who brings an addictive verve and visual dynamism to this bombastic take, and Rodriguez has a charm so appealing it could be weaponized. You want to be her best friend, which works well, because the film is about Gloria’s journey through hell and back to save her best friend, Suzu (Cristina Rodlo).
The problem lies in the rather bland script, which jettisons any trenchant commentary for plot twists and turns, losing its train of thought along the way.
While hobnobbing at a nightclub with a Trumpian pageant big-wig, the friends are separated during a shooting. In an effort to locate Suzu, Gloria gets caught up with the shady local police, who hand her off to La Estrella cartel, who blackmail her into making runs across the border for them, all while the DEA are on her back to inform.
It’s a Catch-22 that becomes increasingly complex but somehow less compelling.
The focus is largely on the relationship with Lino (Ismael Cruz-Córdova), the head of the Estrellas, who takes a shine to Gloria even as he is using her.
Both grew up in California and relate to each other’s identity struggles. Their shared experience humanizes Lino, despite his violent criminal acts. But it’s hard to gain an emotional foothold in “Miss Bala,” because the film seems unsure of itself in terms of what it wants to express about violence, exploitation and morality.
“Miss Bala” is a story about a good girl who has to do bad things to survive. But instead of a bleak tale about a place hopelessly paralyzed in the grip of crime and corruption, the American “Miss Bala” tries to twist it into something empowering.
It’s seemingly reverse-engineered for the slow-motion shot of Rodriguez grabbing an AR-15 in a red satin gown — how very American of her.
Ultimately, Gloria is rewarded, not haunted, by her violent turn, and the film ends on a conservative, pro-government note. It’s a Hollywood ending that completely misses the point of what “Miss Bala” was and should be.
Kaite Walsh is a Tribune News Service writer.