In 2011, the Mexican film Miss Bala, directed by Gerardo Naranjo, enthralled viewers at the Cannes Film Festival. The heroine is a beauty pageant contestant who, by dint of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, gets caught up with rival drug cartels; the title ("Miss Bullet") is a play on the Miss Baja California title she hopes to win. It's a gripping film, well worth seeking out.
2011 also saw the release of The Hunger Games film, and when I reviewed Miss Bala, I noted the parallels between them. (Both feature young women parading around in pretty dresses as part of a fight to save their families and themselves.) But I never imagined that the belated English-language remake of Miss Bala would be directed by Catherine Hardwicke, best known for launching another YA film franchise with Twilight.
The result is a movie that seems to have been shaped to appeal to young female viewers in ways Naranjo's film wasn't. That's not a bad goal in itself, but in the process of making Miss Bala into a more upbeat, empowering survival tale, Hardwicke has lost almost all of what made the original riveting.
Writer Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer has kept the Mexican setting, but the protagonist is now an American makeup artist, Gloria (Gina Rodriguez of "Jane the Virgin"), with more interest in fashion design than beauty pageants. The Miss Baja contestant is a friend (Cristina Rodlo) whom Gloria visits in Tijuana and then loses in a shoot-out at a nightclub.
When Gloria goes to a cop for help, he delivers her straight to the gang responsible for the violence. An eyewitness to their crimes, she's given a choice between death and becoming their accomplice. Soon a Drug Enforcement Administration agent (Matt Lauria) is also in the mix, but rather than rescue Gloria, he has his own plans for her.
Betrayed by almost everyone, this young woman is on her own — a scenario that Naranjo milked to the max by keeping us in her perspective and shooting the action scenes in bloodcurdlingly long takes. Hardwicke, by contrast, sticks to a standard action-flick playbook, and her quick-cut scenes are infinitely less tense.
The remake leaves Gloria's perspective, too, to delve into the psychology of her gang leader nemesis (Ismael Cruz Cordova). He has heartthrob good looks, and for a few uncomfortable scenes, one fears the movie will turn into a Stockholm-syndrome romance. It doesn't help that Cordova gives the stronger performance, and his character is more fleshed out than Gloria's. While Rodriguez makes a likable heroine, she conveys more irritation than desperation, managing nothing close to the dead-eyed, stoic terror of Stephanie Sigman in the original version.
The original Miss Bala sends a strong message about the toll of the drug trade on all Mexicans. By the end, all the authority figures around the heroine have revealed themselves to be corrupt, and her survival, like her original victimization, feels like a cosmic joke.
Hardwicke's version is a passably diverting thriller, but it only occasionally gets within a mile of having that kind of impact. When the DEA agent berates Gloria for her (inadvertent) role in a bombing, he shows her pictures of fellow agents who died, calling them "real Americans." The implication is that she, who was born in the U.S. and barely speaks Spanish, isn't one. While that's about the closest the movie gets to political commentary, it sends its own strong message that stories like Gloria's are American stories, too.