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Misfires Badly

Gina Rodriguez
Gina Rodriguez
Columbia Pictures
 106 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Catherine Hardwicke
Starring: Gina Rodriguez, Ismael Cruz Cordoba   
Miss Bala

The phrase, “Something got lost in the translation,” seems especially appropriate when it comes to English-language American adaptations of popular foreign films. For every U.S. version that builds on the original, like The Departed, or takes it in a completely different, uniquely American way, like The Magnificent Seven, far too many simply miss the boat entirely, making audiences wonder just what the fuss was about the original movie. Disasters like The Vanishing and Swept Away, in which Oscar-worthy foreign material gets a reverse alchemist’s transmutation into Razzie worthy U.S. remakes, come immediately to mind. We can now add another inferior U.S. remake to the list, although not quite as big a disaster as the previous two debacles I mentioned. Miss Bala, an action thriller that was Mexico’s selection for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award in 2011 (it did not actually receive an Oscar nomination) has turned into a thoroughly mediocre film with some political overtones that were not present in the original.


Unlike many American remakes of foreign films, Miss Bala doesn’t stray too far from the original movie geographically. Both primarily take place in Tijuana, with side excursions to San Diego and the Baja California countryside. The movie’s title is a play on words of the Miss Baja California contest title that provides the backdrop for much of the action. Gina Rodriguez stars in the new version as Gloria, a Los Angeles makeup artist who moved from Tijuana as a child and is now a U.S. citizen (her character was a lifelong Tijuana resident in the original version). Gloria returns to Tijuana to spend a weekend with her childhood friend Suzu (Christina Rodlo), who plans to enter the contest.


As Gloria and Suzu party at a local disco, a hit squad led by a local drug cartel kingpin, Lino Esparza (Ismael Cruz Cordova), break into the women’s bathroom while Gloria is taking care of business there. Their target is the local chief of police (Damian Alcazar) who is also at the disco, “charming” some of the pageant contestants, including Suzu. Lino allows Gloria to live, and a major gunfight then ensues, following which Suzu disappears. The next morning, Gloria goes to the police looking for help, only to find out that the cop she meets is on Lino’s payroll and turns her over to Lino.


Lino tells Gloria that he can find Suzu if Gloria helps him with a problem of his own. Her help actually entails her unknowingly parking a car with a bomb inside next to a DEA safe house in San Diego. The resulting explosion kills a couple of DEA agents. Back in Tijuana, the DEA contacts Gloria and threatens her with serious jail time unless she helps them bring down Lino. She tips the DEA agents off about a big arms purchase Lino is trying to make that will take place in a Tijuana bullring. The U.S. agents try to stop the transaction, and another major shootout ensues, at the end of which Lino takes Gloria with him to his own safe house in the desert. There, he again enlists her help, this time to enter the beauty contest (which he has rigged), so she can get close to the Tijuana police chief, who is actually the head of a rival cartel.


Based on the somewhat deceptive trailers for Miss Bala, audiences might think that Gloria turns into a Latino Sarah Connor, dishing out enormous helpings of high caliber revenge against various cartel members. However, Miss Bala never really plays out that way. Instead, nearly every time the gunfire starts in this movie (and it has three big firefights), Gloria spends much of each shootout merely ducking bullets and trying to avoid becoming a victim. And, to boost the sex appeal quotient of the movie, she is dressed in slinky gowns during two of these set pieces. Admittedly, Gloria does get involved in the action, but her participation is usually more a matter of happening to be in the right spot at the right time during a hectic shootout than trying to take a proactive role in the proceedings.


Not having seen the original Miss Bala, I can only guess, based on the reviews I’ve read, that it was more of a straightforward action film, with Gloria’s character (there called Laura) constantly caught between bad and worse in a drug war in which no one was seemingly innocent. This version is a considerably less hardcore, PG-13 rated film, and director Catherine Hardwicke seems to want to make a more nuanced movie. Some of this change in direction may be the result of developments in the international political environment since 2011, with immigration issues now at the forefront, especially when so-called illegal immigration is linked to drug trafficking.


In the original film, the members of Lino’s cartel were all vicious killers, so there was no question of Laura actually sympathizing with them. Instead, she was just trying desperately to find safety somewhere. Here, Lino is the most charming character in the movie, certainly more appealing than the lecherous police chief or the thuggish DEA agents. He even has a backstory of spending time in the United States and learning the criminal ropes before being deported. That meshes well with Gloria’s own feelings of not fitting in, or, as she says, “I’m too Mexican to be gringo, and too gringo to be Mexican.” Mahershala Ali said nearly the same thing in Green Book, only he did it much, much better. Director Hardwicke’s attempts to shoehorn social consciousness and make Gloria a more rounded character by introducing conflicting influences on her loyalties instead turns her into pretty much of a ninny.


The one area in which the new version of Miss Bala excels is the acting talent of its leading lady. Gina Rodriguez hasn’t had a movie role that’s worthy of her ability yet, and she makes the most of what she has here. When she does exhibit some backbone on occasion, she has a commanding presence, and she also evokes sympathy well. In a movie that entirely revolves around her character, Rodriguez does her best to take over the film. Unfortunately, she only has a few opportunities to do so.


There are a few good scenes in Miss Bala, such as one in which Gloria’s bugged cell phone is taken by Lino’s henchmen at the safe house, along with those of everyone else, to find out who is working for the police. She invents an excuse to get into the room where all the phones are being kept in a big bag and desperately tries to find hers before being spotted and then place the bug in another phone instead. Scenes like this one demonstrate how the movie could have worked as a straight action/suspense film instead of an attempt at a more serious, politically relevant drama.


Miss Bala is not a complete disaster; instead, it’s just one more mediocre action film of the sort that generally winds up as a direct-to-video release. But a studio that wants to make Gina Rodriguez into an action star and boost its appeal with the Latino market has instead created a dud that’s not likely to appeal to any market. Rodriguez and the moviegoing public deserve better than Catherine Hardwicke’s confused, inconsistent effort here. Miss Bala is just a creative misfire.

In this clip, Gina Rodriguez completes a mission for the cartel.

Read other reviews of Miss Bala: 

Miss Bala (2019) on IMDb