Gina Rodriguez has star power in spades. That megawatt smile, radiant warmth, and killer comic timing made “Jane the Virgin” one of the most infectious comedies on television. She was surprisingly understated as foil to Natalie Portman in Alex Garland’s “Annihilation,” proving she has dramatic chops. But it took a cerebral sci-fi art film to tamp down the bubbly persona that makes her such an obvious fit for comedy. She has a magnetic screen presence that could carry the kind of genuine Hollywood romantic comedy audiences are so desperate for right now.
Why, then, is Rodriguez playing a helpless human trafficking victim in a hokey crime thriller when she should be reviving the rom-com? Unfortunately for “Miss Bala,” the fact that Rodriguez is entirely miscast is the least of this movie’s problems.
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke (“Thirteen,” “Twilight”), “Miss Bala” is a remake of the 2011 Mexican film of the same name. The first film received widespread critical acclaim after its Cannes Film Festival premiere and was selected as Mexico’s official Oscars entry. Suffice to say, very few of the original creative team was retained for the U.S. remake. (Gerardo Naranjo, the writer-director of the first film, is an executive producer.)
Hardwicke’s “Miss Bala” follows a Mexican-American make-up artist named Gloria (Rodriguez), who visits her former hometown of Tijuana in order to help a friend prepare for the Miss Baja beauty contest. Gloria and Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) exchange friendship bracelets and cliched pleasantries, during which Gloria sums up her complicated feelings about Tijuana: “I always felt like such a stranger here,” she says.
During a dark night out, Suzu introduces Gloria to a handsy police chief before a group of criminals open fire in the club. After losing Suzu in the frenzy, Gloria tells a police officer she got a look at the shooters and gets in his car with him, but her ordeal has only just begun.
She is soon abducted by an organized crime ring that call themselves “Las Estrellas,” led by a charismatic ringleader with piercing green eyes who takes a liking to Gloria. In his effort to endear himself to her, Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova) reveals that he, too, is American — just like her. He will later echo her earlier feelings, telling her, “I never felt like I belonged anywhere,” but his admission will fall on deaf ears.
After she unknowingly blows up a DEA safe house, she’s abducted again, this time by a gruff DEA officer (“Friday Night Lights” star Matt Lauria). Unsympathetic to her plight and holding incriminating footage, he talks her into working for him in exchange for her freedom. She then returns to Lino and Las Estrellas armed only with a cell phone tracker. Forced to drive cash across the border, she encounters a man named Jimmy (Anthony Mackie), who tells her to give Lino the message that there is a DEA mole in his crew.
Gloria’s loyalties shift throughout the movie as he discovers she can trust no one. When the DEA agent leaves her hanging in a bloody shoot-out, she realigns herself with Lino, whose soft spot for Gloria proves useful for staying alive. Their chemistry has all the tension of a rubber band. Rodriguez and Cordova are as vacant as their good looks, and it’s hard to tell who’s more to blame for leaving them out to dry — Hardwicke or screenwriter Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer.
If this is supposed to be Rogriduez’s big action turn, she is hardly given a piece of it. She remains an entirely passive character until the very end of the film, and either follows orders from the men around her or runs haphazardly out of harm’s way. Not that she’s missing much: The forgettable action sequences rely too heavily on slow motion for drama and grenade guns for heat. The moment Gloria finally picks up a gun, cocking an AR-15 in a red gown with a slit for days, fails to deliver the payoff it deserves. With every note as predictable as the next, the movie just blends into a discordant mess. Even Rodriguez’s smile can’t salvage this disappointing remake, but at least it provides a welcome reminder to check out the movie that inspired it.
“Miss Bala” opens in theaters on February 1, 2019 from Columbia Pictures.