Some of the best movies addressing the North American narcotics trade lean hard into the futility of this so-called “drug war,” illustrating the compromise, moral murk, and endangered innocents that exist on both sides of the law, on both sides of the border. In its way, Miss Bala outdoes movies like Traffic and Sicario by portraying the conflict not just as pointless but incompetent, maybe even actively stupid. In this vision of an un-winnable battle, both sides spend a great deal of time pursuing the mild-mannered Gloria (Gina Rodriguez)—not because she has the ability to bring either of them down, but because they both really want her to work for them.
Miss Bala is a remake of a 2011 Mexican film with which it shares a number of plot points and details, though many of the newer film’s absurdities are sui generis. The U.S. version, appropriately enough, makes some adjustments to its heroine’s home country: Instead of a Mexican resident, Gloria is a U.S. citizen who visits her friend, Suzu (Cristina Rodlo), in Tijuana as Suzu prepares to enter the Miss Baja California pageant. (With star-appropriate false modesty, the movie has a contest officiant dismiss the uninterested Gloria, a makeup artist, as not beauty-contest material.) When the two close friends celebrate their reunion (and seek to bolster Suzu’s pageant chances) at a trendy nightclub, they stumble into the middle of a drug-related shootout. Gloria escapes unscathed, but Suzu goes missing. And when Gloria starts looking into her disappearance, she becomes entangled with both the DEA and a drug-dealing gang called Los Estrellas.
The film’s most enduring mystery is not the Suzu’s whereabouts, but why Los Estrellas or the DEA would be so eager to enlist an inexperienced makeup artist in their schemes. They have no reason to trust her, and she has even less reason to trust them. There are hints of explanation on the gang side via the creeping sexual interests of Lino (Ismael Cruz Córdova), who identifies with Gloria’s American/Mexican cultural divide. He was raised in Bakersfield, California, before deportation sent his family back to Mexico, and he seems to regard Gloria with a hint of nostalgia. Córdova, giving the movie’s most interesting performance, keeps Lino’s cards close to his chest, sometimes looking like a scary manipulator and sometimes a goon with a crush.
The thrill of the movie is supposed to be watching Gloria improvise her way through seemingly impossible predicaments, and Rodriguez is certainly well-cast for that scrappy rooting interest. The movie is so aware of her charisma that it hypes up her skill set, even it as it busies her primarily with switching a tracking chip in and out of various cell phones. Though this action isn’t often inherently interesting, director Catherine Hardwicke does keep everything moving with a snappy pace and, less productively, a jumpy style. Gerardo Naranjo’s original Mexican film observes much of its action with lingering shots and long pans; Hardwicke, meanwhile, wants to get closer to the chaos, favoring broadly coherent fast cuts, close-ups of Rodriguez struggling to steel herself in the midst of panic, and the occasional woozy camera tilt.
Comparisons to the original film aren’t entirely fair, in part because it, too, is as much lurid thriller as serious drama. (For all of its more deliberate camerawork, it jumps into its story even faster than the already-efficient remake.) Plenty of audience members won’t have sought out a limited release from nearly a decade ago, and this version of Miss Bala is certainly watchable enough. Hardwicke’s movie still manages to disappoint on its own terms, though, by failing to develop a possible point of departure from the earlier film: the unsettling relationship of convenience between a desperate Gloria and her unpredictable kidnapper. Most of this potential is limited to stray moments, but there’s one scene where Lino teaches Gloria how to shoot that simmers with reckless tension that could have been stretched further in a better movie.
This particular movie bumbles into the unintentional comedy of a casualty-heavy skirmish that nonsensically hinges on the participation of a confused American, sometimes threatening to turn Gloria into an Inspector Clouseau figure and Lino into an inept would-be boyfriend. “Tomorrow’s gonna be better, I promise,” he says by means of consolation after Gloria witnesses a gruesome murder. Given how amusingly casual the movie is about the prospect of rigging the results of a national beauty pageant to honor an entirely unknown and unprepared contestant, 2019’s Miss Bala might have made an effective dark farce.
Instead, it’s somehow both less explicit and more blandly lascivious than its nastier counterpart, equally skittish about exploitation and saying anything meaningful about its subject. It’s the kind of thriller about violent turf wars, corruption, and sex trafficking that’s rated PG-13, in case some 11-year-olds want to see it unaccompanied. If any of them do, they might be the only ones in the room who don’t notice the escalating absurdity of where the movie winds up in its desperate pursuit to flatter its star and reassure its audience.