English-language remakes of popular foreign films are becoming more common as Hollywood studios hope for a sure thing at the box office and stars look for leading roles. With the buddy comedy The Upside, in current release, Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart attempt to surpass the original 2011 French hit The Intouchables (in terms of U.S. grosses, they already have). Bart Freundlich has remade Susanne Bier’s Danish love story After the Wedding (2006) as a vehicle for his wife, Julianne Moore (it opens next month). The case of the new Miss Bala remake and its predecessor intrigues because of what it reveals about disparate cultures (advisory: there are many spoilers ahead).
The 2011 Mexican original, directed by Gerardo Naranjo, straddles action, crime, thriller, and art-house film: a nominee for the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes and the Gold Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival, it unspools the nightmarish scenario of Laura, a Miss Baja beauty pageant contestant (Stephanie Sigman, Annabelle: Creation and Spectre), after she’s abducted by Tijuana narco-terrorist Lino (Noé Hernández, Sin Nombre) and coerced into helping his gang move drugs and settle scores with corrupt Mexican officials and DEA agents.
The title is a pun: in Spanish bala means “bullet,” and there’s gunfire aplenty as Laura bounces from one opponent to another, like a silver pinball in an arcade game. Sigman portrays her with such subdued affect that she appears to be suffering from either PTSD or Stockholm syndrome, as Lino draws her closer into his web, promising her safety if she’ll just do one favor after another for him (Hernandez is made up to look especially fierce and threatening). The movie is not without surreal touches of humor: when Laura does win the Miss Baja contest, no one in attendance can believe that such a mousy, inarticulate candidate could be crowned a beauty queen. But then Lino claims his reward for rigging the pageant by raping Laura in his truck, inflamed as much by her tiara as by her helplessness. The movie is an outcry against not only the border drug wars, but also the Mexican epidemic of kidnapped and murdered women that began in the 1990s and still remains such an urgent issue that a distinct term has been coined: femicidio (femicide).
Almost 180 degrees opposite the original in terms of intention and tone, the Miss Bala remake is an exploitation thriller thinly veiled as a women’s revenge picture. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, it stars Gina Rodriguez (of TV’s Jane the Virgin, an English-language version of a Venezuelan telenovela) as Gloria, an American of Mexican ancestry and a professional Los Angeles makeup artist who drives to Tijuana to give a makeover to her best friend, a Miss Baja competition hopeful. The new Miss Bala repeats many of the same plot points of the first, but adds some new wrinkles.
As in the original, the heroine witnesses a nightclub massacre and is abducted by the criminal gang leader, Lino (here played by the young and handsome Ismael Cruz Cordova), who immediately presses her into service to help him expand his drug empire. This Lino, however, is also a Mexican-American, and like Gloria, he has lived on both sides of the border. Unlike her, however, he’s conflicted about his mixed heritage; it’s an Achilles heel that’s exacerbated by his growing attraction to Gloria, who reminds him of a pretty high school classmate back in Bakersfield. His stance toward Gloria borders on the seductive: in numerous shots, he eyes her appreciatively and caresses her skin and hair. But, reminiscent of Robert Pattinson’s romantic vampire in Hardwicke’s blockbuster Twilight (2006), he doesn’t consummate his desire. Sexy, dangerous, but chaste—that’s certainly a popular female teen fantasy, here played out against some glamorous backdrops in Baja California.
However, the greatest differences between the new Miss Bala and the previous one have to do with mainstream American culture. Early in this version, the younger brother of Gloria’s friend chides her for her rusty Spanish: maybe if she practiced some more, he suggests, she wouldn’t sound like a lame American. It’s a not so subtle acknowledgment that younger generations of assimilated Mexican-American viewers are losing their ancestral language. But the greatest difference is the matter of female agency and ability. Gloria overcomes so many antagonists (including a new set added especially for this remake) and would-be assassins that it’s almost laughable. Realistically, what would be the odds?
But Lino makes the mistake of teaching her how to use an AR-15, America’s most popular rifle, and from then on there’s no mistaking where this film is heading. Vacillating between two polar-opposite images of femininity—the beauty queen and the angry wronged woman—Miss Bala offers a self-flattering vision of American strength, as one focused gun-toting gal strikes a blow for her gender while cleaning up a skirmish in the ongoing war on drugs. Talk about a fantasy. v