'Miss Bala': Film Review

A bland American remake of a tough Mexican original.
2/1/2019

Gina Rodriguez stars in Catherine Hardwicke's remake of the 2011 Mexican film about a young woman who battles a drug cartel to save her friend.

A tough and nasty 2011 Mexican drug world melodrama gets a reductive Hollywood-style makeover in the new Miss Bala. That this tale of a young woman caught between gangsters and the authorities along the Mexico-U.S. border is rated PG-13 rather than R tells you a good deal about the differences between the two films; the former was as hard and bleak as this one is emotional and conventional. The rating also signals that the new production is aimed more at teenage girls than an older action crowd, a bluntly commercial calculation made by the present producers. "Bala," one should know, is Spanish for bullet.

Two other points of comparison jump right out to underline the significant differences between the scary, rough-hewn Mexican original and the blander American remake. The star of the first film, Stephanie Sigman, was in her early 20s and rather scrawny, which made her look thoroughly helpless against her macho male adversaries. By contrast, the title character is here played by Gina Rodriguez, who, post-Jane the Virgin and now in her mid-30s, has been part of such kick-butt action dramas as Deepwater Horizon and Annihilation. It's an alert from the get-go that she's going to take care of business; the movie should have been called Ms. Bala.

This is not to say that dealing with mayhem has ever been Gloria's thing. A Los Angeles makeup artist by trade, she braves the congested border crossing to join her friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) at Fashion Week in Tijuana, where the latter is competing in a Miss Tijuana beauty contest.

Bad vibes emanate as word spreads that the pageant's boss expects to exercise his droit du seigneur with whichever young lady wins, but much worse soon transpires with the arrival of vicious gangsters who shoot up the place in an apparent attempt to cut down the police chief. In the ensuing panic, the invaders' leader, Lino (the memorably blue-eyed Ismael Cruz Cordova), momentarily holds Gloria and tells her to compete in the beauty contest herself, after which she's grabbed by DEA agents led by Jimmy (Anthony Mackie), who sees her new connection as a way to get at Lino.

Talk about being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Either of her unwanted controllers could easily dispose of her with no consequences to them. But both Lino and Jimmy quickly develop a soft spot for her — and happen to be quite good-looking themselves — which gives her another card to play.

All she really wants, though, is to escape both men's clutches, find Suzu and get the hell out of Tijuana, which is presented as corrupt and lawless but more modern and less scary than it appeared in the original Mexican film eight years ago. An air of not just hopelessness but the eternal void hung over much of that pic, a kind of existential airlessness that's replaced here by a succession of stock-in-trade close calls, escapes, rescues and coincidences that make this an infinitely more mainstream, as well as numbingly familiar, movie.

Regular eruptions of gunfire and explosions rock the action from time to time, but director Catherine Hardwicke, still trying to regain her footing a decade after departing the Twilight franchise, delivers scenes of tension and violence that are tart and punchy enough (at least by PG-13 standards) — though she abandons the darker tone that drenched the original. Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer's script has a tidy, programmed feel that results in a feel-good version of a grim and sordid modern yarn. As if to distance itself further from its source, the opening credits simply state, “Based on the Spanish-language film,” without mentioning its title or any of its creators.

Whereas Sigman's victimized innocent acquired a sort of traumatized numbness by what she was forced to experience, Rodriguez's incarnation soldiers through it all with a can-do fortitude. Ultimately, this doesn't translate into any emotional revelations or arresting insights other than the obvious. The ending seems as unlikely as the sight of the sun rising over the Pacific.

Production companies: Canana/Misher Film Productions
Distributor: Sony/Columbia Pictures

Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Anthony Mackie, Cristina Rodlo, Thomas Dekker, Matt Lauria
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Screenwriter: Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer
Producers: Kevin Misher, Pablo Cruz
Executive producers: Mauricio Katz, Gerardo Naranjo, Catherine Hardwicke, Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, Samson Mucke, Arturo Sampson, Andy Berman, Jamie Marshall
Director of photography: Patrick Murguia
Production designer: Marco Niro
Costume designer: Graciela Mazon
Editor: Terilyn A. Shropshire
Music: Alex Heffes

Rated PG-13, 103 minutes