The opening credits of Miss Bala proudly proclaim the film to be based upon a Spanish-language film of the same name, but this is somewhat stretching the truth. The original Miss Bala, released in 2011, is a tense, naturalistic drama about how Mexican cartels traffic young women for profit and abusive pleasure. This new Miss Bala, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, borrows some character names and a few superficial trappings from that version, but it’s much more interested in conveying an empowering character arc through a slight bent toward action within the cartel confines of that original setting. And if you accept it on its own terms, the new Miss Bala kinda, sorta works, even if it’s clearly shooting lower than the harsh humanism of its ostensible progenitor.
Gina Rodriguez stars as Gloria, an American make-up artist who goes to Tijuana to assist her friend Suzu (Christina Rodlo) in the Miss Baja beauty pageant. However, as the two are out partying one night, the club they’re visiting becomes a battlefield as the local cartel attempts to assassinate the chief of police, who is attending the party. Gloria escapes the shootout but loses track of Suzu in the process, falling into the hands of the cartel’s leader Lino (Ismael Cruz Córdova). Lino promises to help Gloria find Suzu, but she must first do everything he says, regardless of her willingness to do so. This leads to complications that land her in DEA custody, who in turn threaten to prosecute her should she not act as a mole within Lino’s gang.
This first act shuffling of Gloria between various rival factions has the benefit of keeping the disparity between the audience’s knowledge and the protagonist’s perspective of the evolving situation equally frantic and confused, but it also acts as a giant spotlight on just how little agency Gloria has as a character. This weakness eventually comes back around to being the point of the film, as she finds small and various ways to rebel and fight back against her captors, but there is a long stretch of the film where we have to watch Gloria be systematically terrorized into empowerment. This feels especially egregious when the subplot about the DEA suddenly becomes a lot less important than the protracted set-up would have you believe, and though the climax does deliver on a promised inevitable turn, the film’s epilogue is borderline insulting in its boldfaced stupidity.
That having been said, once Miss Bala finally settles into a groove that feels less like an overstuffed homage to its namesake – which a majority of this film’s audience will not even know existed – it becomes a bit more interesting by virtue of being more focused on the sadistic interplay between Gloria and Lino. Lino is a frightening yet charismatic presence, making it very believable that Gloria would at once be beholden to his obvious danger and subject to his humanizing appeals to family and self-made growth through hardship. Rodriguez does a fantastic job of walking the line between knowing the monster and remembering that he is, in fact, a monster, so when that tension finally breaks and the bullets start flying, it makes for a satisfying conclusion to the slow escalation.
Unfortunately, it also feels like a small dessert at the end of a meal that’s mostly stew. There sure is a lot thrown into that stew, and more than a few bites of it are pretty tasty, but that single piece of brownie at the end barely feels like enough reward for slogging through some flavors that don't exactly complement one another. Miss Bala exists in this weird middle ground between heightened action and grounded realism, and it’s clear that the film should have leaned into its more exaggerated moments to achieve its desired effect. This may be the seeds of the original version holding it back, but one questions why this is ostensibly based on another film when it so clearly wants to be its own thing. “Bala” translates to English as “bullet,” and though Miss Bala manages to hit the target, one wishes it had aimed a little closer to the bullseye.