By: BabyRuth (Four Beers) –
Because there is a shortage of original ideas in Hollywood (the ah-maaz-ing Serenity notwithstanding- seriously stop reading this and go see it right now if it’s still playing anywhere near you), this is my second review in a row of a remake of a successful foreign film.
This time around, we get a reworking of Mexico’s Miss Bala (2011), the story of beauty pageant contestant who finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and eventually is forced into working for a drug cartel (as ludicrous as that premise sounds, the film was actually influenced by real events). The original is currently streaming on various platforms for $3.99. I checked it out it a day prior to seeing the remake and highly recommend watching it.
While 2011’s protagonist, Laura, was a Mexican aspiring beauty queen, 2019’s Gloria (Gina Rodriguez) is a professional make-up artist living in California. She’s successful enough to land a gig working at L.A.’s Fashion Week, which is where we first meet her. Soon after, she crosses the border into Tijuana to help her best friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) prepare for the Miss Baja pageant. The evening after a preliminary event, Gloria and Suzu head to a nightclub. Suzu’s plan is to schmooze some of the pageant officials, including the chief of police (it’s been rumored he sleeps with the winners and Suzu’s apparently just fine with that. Suzu isn’t so bright.); Gloria just wants to have some fun. That all quickly goes up in smoke, quite literally, as the club is invaded by a local cartel in an assassination attempt on that horny official. Gloria and Suzu are separated amidst the gunfire, with Gloria making it out alive and Suzu missing. The next day, still with no sign of Suzu, Gloria asks a local police officer for help in locating her friend, a disastrous decision which ends in her being delivered straight to the bad guys.
The leader, Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova), takes an instant liking to Gloria, but also threatens her life as well as Suzu’s little brother’s if Gloria does not comply with his orders. But on the promise that he will help find Suzu and, also, won’t kill her, Gloria agrees and finds herself doing the cartel’s dirty deeds. And just two days ago her biggest problem in life was that some designer didn’t have time to look at her make-up sketches. What a difference a day and a trip to nightclub filled with corrupt police and a gang in Tijuana make!
To add to Gloria’s woes, she’s intercepted by the DEA, who threaten her with being charged with multiple crimes and spending pretty much the entire rest of her life in prison if she does not further endanger herself by working with them to infiltrate Lino and the cartel.
So now, with no one to help her and no one to trust, Gloria must play both sides and somehow figure out a way to save herself and her loved ones.
Cue the girl power pop anthem!
As far as remakes go, this one could have been a lot worse. Director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown, and, yes, Twilight) does a competent enough job of filming the action sequences and quieter, tense moments (though some of the best scenes are nearly shot-for-shot duplicates of the original version’s, so raise a glass to Gerardo Naranjo as well).
The main reason to check this one out is Rodriguez, who, stepping out of her television persona (Jane the Virgin), is proving herself to be quite a versatile actor capable of both holding her own in an ensemble piece (last year’s excellent Annihilation), and carrying a film, which she does here.
Likewise, Ismael Cruz Cordova is also quickly becoming someone to watch (you may have recently caught him in Mary Queen of Scots). His Lino is much more complex and layered than 2011’s, having been given more of a backstory this time around. He toes the line of almost, almost becoming sympathetic, but never quite gets there (thankfully) because he’s you know, a ruthless gang leader who murders innocent people. It makes for a more complicated dynamic between the two main characters, especially when Gloria is conflicted about where her loyalties lie (a great moment unfortunately spoiled by the trailer).
2011’s Miss Bala was a dark, harrowing, and unrelenting, hard-R rated crime drama. 2019’s Miss Bala is a glossy, highly-stylized, PG-13 action flick complete with a “you go girl!” climactic moment. The original focused on the corruption of the Mexican government and the horrors of the cross-border drug trade with the main character serving as a stand-in for her nation. While the remake doesn’t shy away from those things, it feels more intent on being a vehicle for Rodriguez (who, again, is great and I hope this leads to more starring roles) and delivering a message of female empowerment. I’m not saying that is necessarily a bad thing, but it misses the point the original film was trying to make.
The ending especially deviates from 2011’s version. It’s almost comical in how everything is wrapped up in a pretty Hollywood bow (there’s even a pop song with lyrics like “you’re the gun, but I’m the bullet”) and even (ugh) leaves room for an opportunity for a sequel (though not likely given the film’s first weekend’s returns). It’s too bad Hardwicke and screenplay writer Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer were too afraid(/pressured by the studio?) to go with the original’s more ambiguous ending.
Everything is Instagram-ready prettier: the homes, the clubs, and especially the cartel, who look more like a boy band than a dangerous gang. They do things like take selfies next to the explosions they set off and hang out in wifebeaters pouring shots down each other’s throats like a bunch of teenagers cutting school. Each member has model looks, chiseled abs, and appears to be under the age of 30. They’re about as menacing as a gang of puppies.
For comparison, this is what Lino looked like in 2011’s Miss Bala:
I don’t really understand the choice to make Gloria a make-up artist instead of a contestant herself. It makes the whole Miss Baja pageant feel like a shoehorned-in afterthought since it’s forgotten about for nearly the entire film. I was at least hoping it was a set-up for Gloria to use her make-up skills to her advantage and trick her way out of situation by disguising herself via extreme contouring. Or maybe kill a bad guy with a super sharp eyeliner pencil to the jugular. Sony could have even partnered with MAC and released a whole Miss Bala collection! But nope. (In case this isn’t clear, I’m kidding. Well, half-kidding.)
And while changing Gloria to a Mexican-American adds an interesting layer to the story, we never learn very much about her. Surely she has family and friends back in California who are wondering why they haven’t heard from her? I hate to keep bringing up the original, but in that one, the stakes were higher as the Lino’s gang held the fates of Laura’s father and brother in their hands. Here, it’s just Suzu. Poor, naive Suzu.
Speaking of the Miss Baja pageant, this is a gripe I had with both films. The whole premise centers on the event and the protagonist’s reluctant and forced participation. But in both cases, she just shows up on the day of the pageant and steps onstage in an evening gown, fitting right in. I mean, yes, it’s fixed and it’s a small local pageant, but there have to be some choreographed group routines right? And a talent contest? (Another missed opportunity for Gloria to display her make-up application skills.) I mean, if Miss Congeniality taught us anything, it’s that
beauty pageants scholarship programs are hard work! So even if you may be mixed up in being a mule for a dangerous cartel and a mole for the DEA with your life and the lives of your loved ones hanging in the balance, that’s still no excuse not to attend at least one rehearsal to appear to be a legitimate contestant. Sheesh!
In all honesty, I really didn’t mind Miss Bala as much as I thought I would. It certainly doesn’t deserve the panning it’s receiving. Though the last act goes ridiculously off the rails for the sake of a shot of a badass Rodriguez working both a fabulous red gown and an AR-15, for the most part, it’s watchable, if forgettable. Gina Rodriguez and Ismael Cruz Cordova turn in strong performances that show lots of promise for future roles.
Miss Bala (2019) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever the friendship bracelets are shown
Take a Drink: every time Lino refers to Gloria as “Chula”
Take a Drink: whenever Gloria manages to get/luck out of a dangerous situation
Take a Drink: whenever Gloria inadvertently does something that results in the death of others
Do a Shot: when the film suddenly appears to have morphed into a romantic comedy
Do a Shot: when it suddenly remembers the pageant
Finish your Drink: you’ll need it for the cornball ending