Of course a movie like “Miss Bala” would have caught Hollywood’s attention. Launched at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011, it took a completely unconventional approach to the tense, high-impact story of a Mexican beauty-pageant contestant who witnesses a terrifying public shooting, goes to the (dirty) cops to report it, and promptly gets handed over to the cartel thugs behind the attack. Instead of sensationalizing the action, director Gerardo Naranjo made it exponentially more impactful by plunging an innocent woman into this out-of-control situation, letting realistic scenes of violence play out at a distance, often in a single shot.
Now, if you want to see exactly the kind of movie “Miss Bala” seemed to be reacting against — one that transforms a victim into a kind of undercover vigilante, and surrounds her with flashy camera moves and explosive set-pieces — look no farther than Sony’s big-budget, PG-13-rated remake, directed for maximum excitement/empowerment by “Twilight” helmer Catherine Hardwicke. In theory, that’s what most audiences probably hoped to get from “Miss Bala” in the first place, and Naranjo knew what he was doing by denying them that.
The studio version of “Miss Bala” substitutes Gina Rodriguez as Gloria, an American-born tough gal (far different from the “Jane the Virgin” character she plays on TV), putting her through many of the same hurdles, just to set up the money shot where she struts down a driveway in a red evening dress brandishing an assault rifle. It’s thrilling to see a woman looking confident and defending herself as all hell breaks loose around her, but it’s a direct contradiction of what the original film stood for. “Miss Bala” no longer serves as a critique of a system that might allow innocent people to get caught in the crossfire of the drug war, but as the kick-ass origin story for a new kind of action hero.
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Most audiences won’t know or care that this is a remake, however, which means Hardwicke’s approach is pretty much how the Hollywood version had to go down. If you’re open to an American movie that dares to challenge the formula — brutal, cynical, and upsetting in the way its ostensible protagonist discovers she’s a passive pawn in a much larger story — you’d be better off checking out “Sicario.” Ironically, even though it hails from the same studio, Sony doesn’t dare take that approach with “Miss Bala.”
Instead, screenwriter Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer has dashed off what feels like back-to-back episodes of a show like “24,” piling up one nail-biting situation after another in which Gloria must rely on her wits to stay alive. For some reason — probably because she’s no longer Mexican but Mexican-American — the character isn’t actually a participant in the Mill Baja beauty pageant, merely visiting her friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) south of the border.
Early scenes in the U.S. establish how hard it is for a woman to get respect (a nice touch), positioning Rodriguez like a young Jennifer Lopez: an exceptionally beautiful Latinx heroine whom we’re meant to read as a relatable Everywoman — in this case, one who gets teased for sounding too white when she speaks Spanish (she’s labeled a “pocha”) and who thinks herself so plain that she wouldn’t even consider competing for the Miss Baja title. In short order, it will be revealed that the contest is a rigged affair anyway, where the winner is expected to sleep with a corrupt local general. Gloria and Suzu are partying in a posh nightclub when a gang of heavily armed cartel hit men shoot up the place and kidnap Suzu.
Gloria thinks she’s doing the right thing by going to the cops, though the officer she confides in works for the cartel, delivering her to the same men she witnessed at the club the night before — which just goes to show how naive she is when the story begins. She’s in so far over her head that it doesn’t occur to her until too late that she’s being used to do the cartel’s dirty work when, following orders, she parks a car full of explosives in front of a house full of DEA agents. Next, they force her to drive back across the border with drug money taped to her body. But Gloria has one hell of a character arc ahead of her, and the movie multitasks between inviting audiences to wonder “What would you do?” and presenting her as a strong and resourceful woman trapped in an impossible situation.
Perhaps most humiliating for someone so independent, she’s obliged to use her sex appeal to manipulate Lino (the green-eyed, wolf-like leader of the gang) into falling for her, and even though becoming one of the gangster’s girlfriends isn’t a foolproof strategy for survival, it seems likely to buy her a measure of protection. Still, it’s a dangerous ploy, considering that DEA agents — who find a way to get through to Gloria when she’s alone — can never really trust whether she’s innocent or in fact Lino’s gal. After these authorities blackmail Gloria into giving them the location of Lino’s next rendezvous, they stage an ambush that makes it quite clear to her that she’s on her own.
Inspired by an actual case where Miss Sinaloa, Laura Zúñiga, was arrested in a drug-running scheme, that’s basically the feeling Naranjo left audiences with at the end of the original “Miss Bala” — the idea that she could never go back to the life she’d had, and whether in the hands of the cops or the cartel, her life was as good as over. In Hardwicke’s version, that sense of unfairness surfaces earlier, allowing Gloria to take a more active role in trying to find a solution that will restore some sense of agency. Naturally, that makes for a more satisfying adventure, even if many of the resulting sequences feel so … conventional.
Watching Rodriguez (whose breakout role was in the 2012 Sundance discovery “Filly Brown”), audiences can sense the emergence of a charismatic new star. That dynamic may as well be a complete reversal of the original film, in which a young woman is overwhelmed and effectively destroyed by the corruption around her. But Hollywood craves a happy ending nearly as much as audiences now want to see women succeed in a system that’s stacked against them. This mostly-English-language version of “Miss Bala” does with a shotgun blast what Naranjo did with a sniper round. It may not be an improvement on the original Mexican movie, but it’s sure to reach a lot more people.