Deep Focus: Miss Bala
Miss Bala, an English-language big-studio remake of an acclaimed 2011 movie from Mexico, provides the first feasible argument for our southern neighbor to pay for building a wall: to keep Hollywood hacks out of the country. An American director, Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Twilight) and a consortium of producers, including Kevin Misher and, to his discredit, the producer of the original Miss Bala, Pablo Cruz, have manufactured a violent, insipid prototype for turning a harrowing yet sensitive foreign film into a stock melodrama—which these days, of course, means a gunstock melodrama, riddled with shootouts. Narrative resonance and moral consciousness are collateral damage.
In Gerardo Naranjo’s original Miss Bala, the title, “Miss Bullet,” is an ironic play on words. Tired of helping her father run a scrappy home-based clothing business, a shy young woman enters a Tijuana beauty pageant with her best friend. Caught in the crossfire of the drug wars, she gets crowned Miss Baja by gang fiat, and is ultimately disgraced and discarded after being used as a dupe or a mule by every force of law and disorder.
In the American version, the heroine, Gloria (Gina Rodriguez), really does become Miss Bullet. A Los Angeles makeup artist with no family, she returns to Tijuana, where she lived for a time with her late father, to help her BFF Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) win the Miss Baja contest. She ends up a plucky “survivor” who wears scarlet couture and accessorizes with an AR-15. The filmmakers don’t pull off anything that Sicario: Day of the Soldado didn’t do a thousand times better. After trashing everything novel in the material, they doubtless hoped that a popular TV star like Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin), embodying a reductive notion of “empowerment,” would create a bankable franchise with a Red Orphan to match Marvel’s Black Widow. But Rodriguez never displays the charisma or the talent of a movie star. She was exciting and affecting as the addicted paramedic in Alex Garland’s Annihilation but (to borrow from Dorothy Parker on Katherine Hepburn), as an avenging angel “she runs the gamut of emotion from A to B.” She’s an action figure that stays in its box: the plastic embodiment of spunk.
In the opening scene, set before an L.A. gala, Gloria’s makeup supervisor (Thomas Dekker) scorns her ideas and sketches and tells her, “I’m not paying you to think.” That must have been what Hardwicke told this film’s Mexican screenwriter, Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer (currently adapting the DC comic book Blue Beetle). He inflates simple, horrifying episodes—like Naranjo’s protagonist ditching a car in front of the U.S. embassy, not realizing that the trunk contains three corpses, including a DEA agent—into empty pyrotechnic setpieces. Now the target is DEA headquarters, the vehicle is a car bomb, and it flattens an entire city block.
Hardwicke and Dunnet-Alcocer level the ethical landscape, too. Naranjo based the key American law-enforcement figure on Enrique “Kiki” Camarena Salazar, the valiant DEA officer tortured and killed for his part in scorching an $8 billion drug empire. In Hardwicke and Dunnet-Alcocer’s movie, a Machiavellian and corrupt DEA man handles Gloria so crudely that he makes kingpin Lino Esparza (Ismael Cruz Cordova) come off, mid-film, as the ruggedly charming Robin Hood he pretends to be. (Matt Lauria, in a sad comedown from his complex, likable Luke Cafferty in TV’s Friday Night Lights, plays the DEA man with unmitigated coarseness.) Cordova, the freshest performer in the film, carries himself with a lordly air. He’s both quasi-seductive with Gloria and amusing to us, especially when he reminisces about his childhood in dusty Bakersfield, California. But their most intimate moment arrives when he teaches her how to nuzzle a semi-automatic rifle. Cordova’s performance, like his character arc, has nowhere to go but down.
After digging themselves into a soulless, nihilistic hole, Hardwicke and company climb out of it by resorting to deus ex Mackie—Anthony Mackie, who appears, despite his billing, in exactly two sequences. By then the movie has gone to hell with action-movie clichés. In a nightclub shootout the gunfire functions as strobe light. And the film’s score is the journeyman director’s equivalent of a Wall of Sound: chugging tension music ratchets through our brains like the noise of an aging railroad clickety-clacking over rust-filled gaps.
After several days of mayhem, the sight of our protagonist getting pushed on stage and crowned as Miss Baja fails to summon a single frisson. It’s especially confounding in this version, where Gloria never intends to be a contestant—yet she steps up and takes her prize as if she were a TV professional, like Rodriguez. It pales in contrast to the same setpiece in the 2011 movie, which takes on coruscating tragicomical dimensions. The Mexican film’s coronation scene is a stunner worthy of early Fellini: Naranjo’s lead performer, Stephanie Sigman, in a sublime performance, freezes in confusion and grief, and Gabriel Chavez, as the show-must-go-on emcee, coerces the audience into applauding her for “filling the stage with emotion.”
In the earlier, more authentic film, Naranjo generally employs an austere style: his languorous pans and tracking shots suggest the weight and force of the world beyond his heroine’s comprehension. Naranjo knows when to take a straightforward, analytical look at a decisive act. He depicts the drug lord’s meticulous taping of cash to the heroine’s naked waist as a devastating montage of defilement. An image of Sigman facing forward, hands behind her head, in a black bra and a money belt made of packing tape, provided the original film with its searing poster art.
The current producers may offer a rough equivalent in the promotional photos for their film. But in the actual movie the act has zero impact. Hardwicke’s generic, glitzy technique reduces the conception of a man transforming a woman into a cash machine to a few quick exploitative flashes. We should feel the palpable indignity of the mob chief attaching the adhesive and stacks of American currency to her flesh. Instead, like the Latina character in A Chorus Line, we feel… nothing. Hardwicke tosses away the dynamite epiphany and throws away the money shot—and the movie.
Michael Sragow is a contributing editor to Film Comment and writes its Deep Focus column. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.