Miss Bala (2019)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
Gina Rodriguez is a star on-the-rise, and she deserves more leading roles.
Fans of the 2011 original, which has a dedicated following, will want to take a look at Catherine Hardwicke’s Americanized interpretation.
The crew was comprised of 75% Latinx people. Representation matters people - in front of and behind the camera.
The script can be summarized in two words: Not. Good.
Catherine Hardwicke has made a film that lacks cohesiveness in terms of tone and storytelling.
Drug running, gun running, abduction, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, blackmail, violence, cocaine, terrorism: All the makings for a good old fashioned PG-13 movie to send our teenagers to!
For a film that has its fans, but never quite reached the zeitgeist with the general public, Miss Bala seems like an interesting choice for a remake. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight, Miss You Already), Gina Rodriguez (“Jane The Virgin”) lands her first leading role as Gloria, who will find herself a shiny new possession, abducted by the brutal Las Estrellas drug cartel.
In 2012, Gerardo Naranjo's acclaimed Mexican thriller painted a picture of a Mexican culture rich and vibrant, but also clinging to relevance, as drug cartels and vicious violence began to dominate populated sections of the country. When you season the terror with corrupt cops and federal agents, Naranjo's Mexico felt like something of a war zone.
In Hardwicke’s film, criminality likewise rules the day, however her film and the screenplay by first-time feature writer, Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, develops something of a Stockholm Syndrome-like fascination with Las Estrellas’ leader, a vicious druglord named Lino (Ismael Cruz Córdova).
More on that in a moment.
Hardwicke, working with a dithering screenplay, gives Rodriguez plenty to chew on from the outset. A makeup artist working in Los Angeles' fashion world, Gloria is ready to head across the border to Tijuana to support and prepare her best friend, Suzu (Cristina Rodlo), for the upcoming Miss Baja California pageant.
Once there, Gloria and Suzu head out for a night on the town, only to have everything go haywire. At a local nightclub, Suzu indicates her plans to cozy up to the seedy owner of the Miss Baja pageant. As she sidles her way on over, Gloria's bathroom visit is interrupted by several gang members, who bust into the restroom and begin shooting up the dance floor.
Gloria will soon discover a world where everyone appears to be corrupt. Her attempt to talk to the police leads to her falling into the hands of Las Estrellas and Lino, who takes a personal interest in his newest charge. After she becomes the pawn in a horrific attack orchestrated by the gang, she finds her way to DEA officials, who believe her complicit in the activity. Agreeing to help her, Gloria then becomes something of a pawn for the DEA, and must eventually try and play both sides against one another, doing whatever she can to keep the missing Suzu and her distraught younger brother safe.
Hardwicke’s command on this material seems tenuous at best, with Dunnet-Alcocer unable to fully grasp the ideas and concepts he is trying to write about. Where Naranjo’s Miss Bala used long takes, precise, almost strategic editing, and allowed its audience to sit and develop a sense of understanding around its characters, this Miss Bala is a whiz-bang affair, which looks and feels like a boring, run-of-the-mill action film from 10-15 years ago.
Alarmingly, key scenes are badly mismanaged.
In the nightclub sequence, for example, where Las Estrellas gang members arrive and engage in that shootout, Hardwicke undercuts the intensity and suspense by sticking with a Tropical Latin music score, almost as if she is making the brutality on screen fun and exciting. In actuality, the stakes are supposed to be raised here: Suzu is missing, Gloria is alone and trying to avoid getting killed, she has been witness to murder. And instead, gunshots fill the soundtrack with salsa rhythms, and everything feels just wrong.
Throughout the directorial stumbles, which only increase as the film moves along, Rodriguez proves to be the saving grace. A striking performer, she blossoms on screen. Despite the haphazard film constructed around her, she conveys emotion, fear, bravery, and toughness in a convincing way. Her smile, coupled with sensitivity, and a pretty wicked scowl, all pay dividends. Though we begin counting inventory on all of Miss Bala’s misfires, Rodriguez proves more than able to handle pretty much anything thrown her way.
The problem is: There just isn’t much here to really celebrate.
The jarring shifts in tone, the frenetic editing of action sequences, the mature themes the movie introduces - all feel, well, icky, in how they are presented to a PG-13 audience. When Lino tries to open up to Gloria, then reacts with jarring violence, misogyny, and anger in other moments, we are left wondering whether we are really being asked to empathize with a man who gleefully celebrated murdering innocent people, not more than 20 minutes into the movie.
Pardon me if I struggle to smile while he lovingly shares his family's homemade BBQ tacos with Gloria.
Nevertheless, by the time we reach the climactic third act, Miss Bala has gone off the rails. Double-crosses and betrayals, a convoluted narrative around why the Miss Baja California pageant is so important in the first place, and why Gloria must suddenly compete…it all just makes us shake our heads.
I am unclear why Naranjo’s film was re-made, but the excitement of a major studio, female, Latinx-led action movie quickly subsides when the material just cannot sustain the ambitious heights it fails to reach. Elements of this version are fun here and there, Rodriguez clearly a star on-the-rise.
The balas, though? Nope. They fly right by, missing most of the targets Catherine Hardwicke was seemingly hoping to hit.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Gina Rodriguez, Ismael Cruz Córdova, Anthony Mackie, Aislinn Derbez, Damián Alcázar, Matt Lauria, Cristina Rodlo, Ricardo Abarca, Thomas Dekker, Erick Rene Delgadillo Urbina.
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Written by: Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer
Based on the film “Miss Bala”, written by Gerardo Naranjo, Mauricio Katz
Release Date: February 1, 2019