Gerardo Naranjo’s 2011 Mexican thriller Miss Bala followed the tragic story of an aspiring beauty queen who was kidnapped and coerced into service by a cartel; it was a brutal, relentless movie, one that had little time for psychological shading. In the new American remake, the ruthlessness of the original has been tempered quite a bit, replaced by a string of narrative clichés and pro forma character development. Without the unyielding forward charge of the original, however, the far-fetched story doesn’t really work. And the movie’s attempts to explain its characters doesn’t make them any deeper; quite the contrary, it renders them simplistic.
Miss Bala 2.0 follows young Los Angeles make-up artist Gloria (Gina Rodriguez) as she travels south of the border to Tijuana in order to help her best friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) enter into the Miss Baja California beauty pageant. One night, the two of them go to a club, where Gloria witnesses a group of armed thugs enter through the women’s bathroom. One massive, deadly melee later, Suzu has gone missing and Gloria has been whisked away by a local gang, led by Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova), a fellow Mexican-American who spent his childhood in Bakersfield. He decides that she can be of some use to them, especially when it comes to transporting drug money back across the border.
The situation gets complicated, however, when the young woman is intercepted by a merciless DEA agent (Matt Lauria) and forced to help his team spy on the bad guys. Faced with no choice — the feds refuse to believe that she’s just an innocent bystander who’s been kidnapped — Gloria agrees to become a mole as well as a mule. But might she have feelings for the hunky Lino? He’s a brutal gang leader, but he’s also got a sad backstory about being out of place in both the U.S. and Mexico — “too gringo to be a Mexican, too Mexican to be a gringo,” as he describes it. That seems to echo Gloria’s own experiences of alienation in different worlds. It also echoes her specific journey in this film: When she’s in Mexico, she’s told she sounds like an American. Crossing back into the U.S., she’s regarded with suspicion.
What we have here is something perched between soap opera and action movie yet doesn’t quite commit itself to either genre. Director Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight) stages the gunfights clean and fast, but they’re also largely anonymous — what happens is rarely interesting or intricate enough to hold our attention. And while the story builds some romantic tension between Gloria and Lino, things never go so far as to make us feel invested in their relationship. (Though they do share a plate of delicious-looking barbacoa together.) The filmmakers are probably wary — understandably so — of making the tormented heroine fall for the criminal who kidnapped her. But without any deeper emotional engagement, it’s hard to really care about what happens to anybody besides our morally conflicted.
Gloria, however, is Miss Bala‘s key strength. Rodriguez proves herself quite adept at conveying this young woman’s terror even as she attempts to stay calm: We can see in her eyes that she’s petrified by what’s happening to her, and barely holding it together. With each new twist — each new, dangerous alliance she’s forced into — Gloria’s situation feels increasingly hopeless. That’s also why some of the picture’s later developments are so ludicrous and out-of-place. She seems too human to turn into a kick-ass action hero.
Naranjo’s original, though inspired by real-life events, was itself quite an unlikely tale. But the film’s relentless forward march, its refusal to slow down, sold the narrative — you couldn’t quite believe your eyes, but you also couldn’t stop watching. This Hollywoodized remake is mostly generic and uninspired, but it also proves that Rodriguez has the makings of a true movie star. It’ll be exciting to see what she does next … so long as it’s not a sequel to this.