Miss Bala

The rare remake that makes you wish the original had never existed.

Patti Jenkins was recently quoted as saying that Hollywood, contrary to popular opinion, always wants to work with women on directing projects; it’s just that they never want to make the projects that women actually want to make. I’ve always suspected that something like this was the case with Catherine Hardwicke. She’s talked often about the “hustle” of managing her career, and looking at her filmography would not exactly enlighten you as to what she was really all about. Her last good movie, Lords of Dogtown — not coincidentally also the last film of hers with what appeared to be a beating heart behind it — came out nearly 15 years ago, and in that time she’s bounced from television to blockbusters to indie mumble-fests with no seeming coherence between projects. Why not remake Miss Bala, right?

Hardwicke has always had a great eye and an impressive, fluid visual style, moving effortlessly between genres on nearly all of her films. But one thing she’s never, ever once cared even a little bit about was pacing. To call Miss Bala a meandering, confusing mess would be generous. What little story actually exists in the film is almost comically overstated, to the point that I kept wondering if there must be a twist coming at some point. Surely, there has to be more to it than this. But, nope. A woman wants to win a beauty contest and instead gets kidnapped by a drug cartel. That’s it. Nothing else is going on. There is no deeper meaning, not even really anything all that pressing that has to be accomplished by anyone in the film. The film never moves beyond its own basic premise toward what you might call a story or a plot, and eventually, it just finds ways to distract itself from this fact. Mostly this involves a lot of characters dying and a lot of other characters not dying, but it’s all so random that it hardly matters who makes it out of this thing alive.

It’s almost impossible to imagine that any single actor on screen had even the vaguest clue what to do with their characters. Accents come and go, the dialogue switches from English to Spanish and back again with no real motivation, moving way beyond the bounds of credulity that would even be expected from an American remake of a Mexican film where the majority of the lines need to be in English anyway. One character is even positioned early on to play a crucial part of what passes for the plot until the moment you can just about see — take your pick — either the actor, screenwriter or director just throw their hands up and decide, “OK, this character is boring,” and that character just bails on the film entirely, never to be seen or heard from again. That was actually the funniest moment in what is otherwise a lifeless husk rolling across the screen for two hours. 

Is there a drug problem in the United States? Are all those drugs coming from Mexico? Are beauty pageants evil? Is the DEA complicit? Somehow these basic questions are left unanswered, despite the script endlessly cycling through each of them as possible plot machines. It’s hard to care about a movie when the movie itself can’t be bothered to get up off the couch and do even this most basic of legwork. I still have faith that Hardwicke has some more good movies left in her, but I think I’m done holding my breath.

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