Film Review: Miss Bala (dir by Catherine Hardwicke)


About 75 minutes into the American remake of Miss Bala, Gloria (played by Gina Rodriguez) is inadvertently responsible for getting a totally innocent women killed by a Mexican drug cartel.

After I finished watching Miss Bala and I was trying to figure out why exactly this remake did not work for me, my mind kept returning to that scene.  It’s a very dramatic scene and yet, at the same time, it has almost no emotional impact.  Some of that’s because the woman only appears in one other scene before she gets executed and it’s obvious that the only reason the character was included in the film was so she could be killed.  The film itself doesn’t really seem to care about the innocent woman.  Instead, its focus remains on Gloria and how she feels about the violence.  While we get some scenes of Gloria looking distraught and, at one point, vomiting over a balcony, it still doesn’t seem as if Gloria is really that upset about the fact that the woman’s been executed.  Instead, she mostly seems to be annoyed by the fact that she had to witness it.  In the scene afterwards, you never really get the feeling that Gloria’s carrying around any sort of lingering guilt for the role that she played in the woman’s death.

However, I think that what really bothered me was that, in this film that took place almost entirely in Mexico, the executed woman was one of the few positively-portrayed Mexican characters and she was killed off as almost an afterthought.  The film was more concerned with how the American Gloria felt about the woman’s death than about the woman herself.

Miss Bala is a remake of a Mexican film.  The original Miss Bala came out in 2011 and it starred Stephanie Sigman as Laura Guerrero, an aspiring beauty queen who finds herself caught in the middle of the never ending war between the DEA and the Mexican drug cartels.  The original Miss Bala was a violent and often lurid film but it was also an unusually powerful examination of what it’s like to be an innocent trapped in the middle of war.  Stephanie Sigman played Laura with the sad-eyed stoicism of someone who knew that she had little choice but to do whatever the cartel ordered her to do.  In the original Miss Bala, Laura stood-in for every innocent who had been victimized by either side of the War on Drugs.  The film ended up a note of cynical ambiguity, suggesting that survival had less to do with skill and everything to do with luck.

In the remake, Laura is transformed into Gloria, an American makeup artist from Los Angeles who comes to Tijuana to help her friend compete for the title of Miss Baja.  By changing the lead character’s nationality, the remake also changes the story’s focus.  It’s no longer the story of someone trying to survive living in a war zone.  Instead, it becomes just another film about an American getting into trouble while traveling abroad.  Interestingly enough, Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova), the aspiring drug lord who kidnaps Gloria, is also an American who happens to live in Tijuana. I assume this was done so the film would have an excuse to have everyone speaking English but it still feels odd to watch a movie about the Mexican drug war in which we rarely hear anyone having a substantive conversation in Spanish.

Gina Rodriguez plays the role of Gloria with a sort of open-faced blandness that occasionally makes Miss Bala feel as if it’s an extended episode of Jane The Virgin.  While the remake tries to make Gloria into a more proactive character than the original’s Laura, Rodriguez never suggests that there’s much going on below the surface.  Far more impressive is Ismael Cruz Cordova, who plays Lino with a sexy and dangerous swagger.  Cordova bring so much charisma to the role that it’s not until the end credits role that you realize that nothing Lino did made much sense.

Director Catherine Hardwicke is responsible for one of my favorite film of all time (Thirteen).  She also directed the enjoyably melodramatic Red Riding Hood.  And, of course, she’ll always be known for directing the first Twilight.  With Miss Bala, though, Hardwicke seems to just going through the standard action film motions.  She never captures the original’s outrage about what the never ending drug war is doing to the people of Mexico.  Instead, for the most part, the remake of Miss Bala shrugs off any intentional subtext and instead focuses on building up to a sequel that will probably never come.

Skip the remake of Miss Bala.  The original is all you need.

4 Shots From 4 Films: The Violin, El Infierno, Miss Bala, Heli


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking.

Happy Cinco De Mayo!

Despite what many people seem to believe, Cinco De Mayo is not the same thing as Mexican Independence Day (that’s celebrated on September 16th).  Instead, Cinco De Mayo commemorates the Mexican army’s victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla.  That battle was fought on May 5th, 1862.  That was a 157 years ago, today.

Cinco De Mayo is a pretty big deal down here in Texas and some of my fondest (and, in some cases, haziest) memories are related to this date.  I especially like to remember May 5th, 2007, in which I spent several hours with a group of my closest and dearest friends, sitting out on the roof of a friend’s house, watching fireworks explode over our heads.  That was a wonderful night, even if someone did eventually end up falling off the roof.  (Don’t worry, he not only survived but he’s now got a pretty good job in D.C. and he’ll probably be your congressman someday.)

In honor of the day, here are four shots from four of my favorite Mexican films….

4 Shots From 4 Films

The Violin (2005, dir by Francisco Vargas)

El Infierno (2010, dir by Luis Estrada)

Miss Bala (2011, dir by Gerardo Naranjo)

Heli (2013, dir by Amat Escalante)