Updated: Feb 7, 2020
Miss Bala is a routine action/thriller about a woman dragged into a war between crooked law enforcement officers and a ruthless drug kingpin. It would be completely forgettable if it were not for the care taken in writing the protagonist as well as the performance of the actress playing her. It is based on a 2011 Mexican film that was darker and had an urgency to it that its remake lacks. It feels like a very Hollywood-ized version of the story. But the sensitive approach to its hero, and a strong lead performance from Gina Rodriguez, make this slightly better than it probably should have been.
Gloria is a makeup artist in California. She returns to Tijuana to help her best friend, Suzu, prepare for a beauty pageant. One night, Suzu drags her to a nightclub. While they are there, a drug cartel starts a shootout with police. Gloria escapes, but is unable to find her friend. Soon, she is abducted by the cartel’s leader, who plans to use her desperation, and her American passport, for his own gain.
The US Miss Bala (99 minutes without the end credits) has little to add to the conversation on immigration and crime around the US/Mexico border. It feels like needless exploitation at a time when thoughtful discussion would be quite valuable. The original was about the innocent people caught in the middle of the war on drugs. The remake is more of an action movie with a topical hook. It throws a civilian character into a world she does not know, then gives confusing, largely unexplained, motivations to those around her. She is a sympathetic hero, though making her into a hero instead of the victim of a massive system lessens the impact of the story.
What it does do is empower her, which is a little out of place in this particular story, but works for Gloria’s individual arc. She is a woman who does not feel accepted as a makeup artist, an American or a Mexican. The movie fails to really delve into her identity issues. It is mainly focused on her fight to survive her new reality. She is a smart, resourceful victim who never gives up on her quest to find Suzu and escape her potentially deadly predicament. The character’s journey is believable and easy to get behind.
That is due in large part to Gina Rodriguez. She plays Gloria like a normal woman who suddenly finds herself in a horrible situation where every choice leads her deeper into danger. Her motivations are always clear. Even though the screenplay includes some twists down the stretch that were not plausible, Rodriguez made them easier to take. I would not mind seeing her as an action hero again, preferably in a story more fitting of one than this is.
The Mexican Miss Bala was a harrowing story that put a face on those personally hurt by the cartels. The American Miss Bala does not go nearly as deep. It is not bad so much as unnecessary. It is more faithful in plot than I expected, but the message it delivers is different. This seems like a case where someone unfamiliar with the original would enjoy this more than I did. The fact that they have turned a complex tale into a fairly derivative crime thriller will probably not disappoint you as it did me. Perhaps you will just see a decent movie with a good central performance.
2¾ out of 5
Gina Rodriguez as Gloria
Ismael Cruz Córdova as Lino
Cristina Rodlo as Suzu
Ricardo Abarca as Poyo
Damián Alcázar as Chief Saucedo
Anthony Mackie as Jimmy
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke
Screenplay by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer