In “Miss Bala,” a disappointingly bland genre exercise directed by Catherine Hardwicke (“Twilight,” “Thirteen”), a Los Angeles makeup artist heads to Tijuana, Mexico, to help her best friend enter a local beauty pageant. Big mistake.
Amid a hail of bullets and a string of explosions, our innocent heroine is repeatedly abducted, exploited, threatened and terrorized by murderous drug-cartel operatives and duplicitous narcs, becoming the pawn of a system where criminality is the law of the land.
It sounds like it should be better, and in fact, it already has been. A Hollywood revamp of a superior, same-titled 2012 thriller by the Mexican auteur Gerardo Naranjo, “Miss Bala” cleaves to that earlier picture in certain key story particulars. But nearly everything else that made Naranjo’s work so distinctive — the downbeat realism, the gliding camerawork, the biting political critique — has been clumsily jettisoned, leaving only generic action beats and a slapped-on ode to female empowerment in their place.
Well, not only. The remake does have the benefit of an alert, engaging performance by Gina Rodriguez, whom you may already know by her small-screen alter egos, including Jane the Virgin and Carmen Sandiego. Here she plays Gloria, who’s visiting Tijuana to aid her pal Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) in her quest to be crowned the next Miss Baja California. The title “Miss Bala,” which translates to “Miss Bullet,” is a grim verbal riff on that contest, whose skimpily clad beauties provide a glittery front for all manner of matter-of-fact corruption, from standard political malfeasance to forced prostitution.
The violence begins promptly. At a nightclub with Suzu one evening, Gloria has the misfortune of coming face-to-face with some gun-toting assassins shortly before they attempt a hit on a powerful official. Unable to find Suzu in the aftermath of the shooting, Gloria seeks help from a nearby cop (bad idea) and slips down a rabbit hole of cartel intrigue: If she’s Alice, then her smirking, taunting Cheshire Cat companion is Lino (the Puerto Rican-born Ismael Cruz Córdova), a dangerously handsome ringleader who soon has Gloria smuggling laundered money into the U.S.
Like the earlier movie, Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer’s script has plenty more jackknife twists and shady customers in store, including a snarling DEA agent (Matt Lauria) and a poker-faced cartel contact (Anthony Mackie) just across the border. But the story’s biggest difference concerns Miss Bala herself.
The original film’s protagonist, Laura, was a fictional stand-in for Laura Zúñiga, a real-life Mexican beauty queen arrested in 2008 for her suspected involvement in a drug-trafficking scandal, although no evidence of wrongdoing on her part was ever found. An innocent caught in the crossfire, Naranjo’s Laura became, as the critic J. Hoberman wrote in the Village Voice, “a metaphor for her nation.”
No such weight attaches itself to Gloria, whose American-outsider status encourages us to read the new “Miss Bala” as one of those slick cautionary tales about the dangers of tourism. That’s counterproductive, to say the least, but it’s also a strictly commercial calculation, a bid for cross-cultural appeal that conveniently removes the encumbrance of the Spanish language (though it strains credulity somewhat that so many of Gloria’s vicious captors accommodate her English-only needs).
With its lame quasi-twist ending and a strained action climax that will probably be labeled “feminist” in some quarters, this remake lacks its predecessor’s political resonance and makes no attempt to duplicate its formal mastery. Naranjo’s brilliantly staged long takes and sly use of off-screen space ensured that his “Miss Bala” felt like more than just a nail-biting thriller: It was a story of entrapment and dislocation told genuinely, and nightmarishly, from the inside.
It’s understandable that Hardwicke didn’t want to mimic her predecessor’s moves. But in chop-chop-chopping the action into standard Hollywood fragments, she has drained the material of its tension, its meaning and its purpose, to say nothing of its beauty.