You would think director Catherine Hardwicke would have had a steadier film career, one that would have mirrored Sofia Coppola or Claire Denis. Her debut film was the independent Sundance darling “Thirteen” which went on to be a respected film, even an Oscar nominated one that generated Holly Hunter a Best Supporting Actress nod in 2003. Her follow-up “Lords of Dogtown” captured her American indie sensibilities, however it didn’t take long for her to sell out as director for hire in directing the first “Twilight”, along with other mediocrity like “Red Riding Hood”. Often her style is very aggressive and now she is helming the remake of Geraldo Naranjo’s outstanding 2011 Mexican thriller of the same name, in which the original “Miss Bala” (2011) made my top 10 list in 2012, it was’t released theatrically in the US until 2012.
Like the original, it covers drug smuggling, brutal drug cartels, double crosses, and kidnapping. While the original had impeccable craft that was in the vein of Brian De Palma and Michael Mann, Hardwick’s comes off far choppier and noisier. It’s missing the tension and brooding unraveling buildups, and awe-inspiring set-pieces that made the original so unblemished. Hardwicke also doesn’t have the dramatic execution, it fails to resonate on an emotional level, and the film just isn’t polished enough to marvel you on a technical level the way the original did.
The narrative is very similar to the original, only this time the names and professions are changed. The protagonist this time isn’t a beauty pageant contestant, but instead a make-up artist named Gloria (Gina Rodriguez), and she is a native of California instead of Mexico. Gloria ends up visiting her best friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) to support her as she competes in a Miss Baja beauty pageant. She ends up joining Suzu for a party at a nightclub that ends up alternating her fate in a sudden moment once a brutal drug cartel enters the club and shoots up the club.
Gloria ends up escaping the chaos, however is soon kidnapped by a cartel leader named Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova) who threatens to turn her into his own slave, by threatening to do horrendous harm to her and family if she doesn’t go through with the operations he has planned for her. By finding her way to the US government officials of the D.E.A. and FBI, Gloria finds out that they are just corrupt as the drug cartels, and she is now trapped as a pawn between both colliding worlds.
The main issue with “Miss Bala” is how clumsy the film is in just about every sequence, it has a jumble of jittery close-ups and medium close-ups that feels like the overused Tony Scott/Fernando Meirelles from the 2000’s, and the song selections in the soundtrack feel misplaced and rather baffling. You can at once hear songs by St. Vincent and Portugal the Man just goes to show how hollow and unnecessary the film is. It’s a film that sets itself up for a series, but the chances of this film gaining a big audience and making a lot of money are very slim. What we get is a unnecessary cash crab, that will hopefully bring more audiences to Naranjo’s masterpiece .
Also, Hardwicke films “Miss Bala” with the outsider eye, that shows Mexico only has a place of extreme violence and poverty. Unlike the original, which had a lot to say about the drug war in the bleakest and most complex ways, here doesn’t have much to say about it other than it’s corrupt which we have already been told in numerous other far greater films like Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic”, Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario”, and the original “Miss Bala”.
What works here mainly is the casting and performances. Cordova is effective as the villain and as the role of Lilo, very cunning and dangerous. The Stockholm-sydrome romance here seems tacked on and very Hollywood, however their chemistry in the film is filled with the films best moments and it creates great sexual tension and heat.
Who else can Gloria trust? Gloria ends up being thrown into the Lions den of the drug cartel by the D.E.A and they hold little interest in protecting her. The violence here comes off absurd, and while Gina Rodriguez is a good actress, her performance here just doesn’t capture the suffering or pathos that Stephanie Sigma delivered. In fact Sigma’s performance was Oscar worthy, and far greater than a majority of actresses that were nominated that year. While the violence and action in the original was indeed absurd and DePalma-esque, and one could raise objections that such bleak material as exploitation and drug cartels that lead to great suffering shouldn’t be sensationalized, the original just had far greater direction and craft. Here, the action comes of laughable and indeed unrealistic, of Gloria miraculously dodging bullets and Hardwicke lovingly staging awesome explosions, and the action here feels like it’s in the vein of a 90’s Hollywood action film you would have rented from Blockbuster Video back in the day.
While that may sound successful, the script is very lackluster, that is undermined by too many loose ends and implausibilities that takes away the films kinetic energy. Hardwicke stays true to the original and stages the action scenes that will please any action fan, leading to a climax that does leave some awe, and Rodriguez delivers an emotionally charged performance that allows you to root for her all the way. Unlike the original, the protagonist is left with more empowerment. Rodriguez is given an AR-15 with a red dress, and she isn’t as trapped. It’s a feminist action fantasy that certainly takes the material into a different direction, but it lacks a perspective and ideas that were found in the original. It should have been a grittier film, and it doesn’t leave the gasps or adrenaline that was found in the original.