In “Miss Bala,” Gina Rodriguez chops an onion, shoots an AR-15 and does various other things that might count as spoilers if I told you about them. Or not, if you’ve seen the trailer. Rodriguez, looking for action as “Jane the Virgin” winds down, finds it as Gloria Fuentes, a Los Angeles makeup artist ensnared in the cross-border drug trade. Gloria, who travels to Tijuana to help her childhood friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) prepare for a beauty contest, is basically in the wrong place at the wrong time, something that might be said for everyone involved with this movie, audience included.
Which is too bad. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke (“Thirteen,” “Twilight,” “Red Riding Hood”) from a script by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, “Miss Bala” has pretty solid DNA. It’s more or less based on an earlier film of the same title directed by Gerardo Naranjo and starring Stephanie Sigman, which used action-thriller techniques and moods to explore the corrosive effects of narco trafficking on the lives of ordinary Mexicans. The inescapable power of the cartels gave that “Miss Bala” a feeling of claustrophobic terror and sometimes absurd fatalism. It was an intense, almost hallucinatory parable of utter vulnerability and desperate compromise.
This version, in the dreariest Hollywood-remake tradition, turns a grim, morally ambiguous story into a fable of empowerment. That might be kind of fun if it didn’t feel so tired and timid. Rodriguez shows a little spark early and late, but mostly she is stricken, scared and shut down. Which is understandable given the character’s predicament, but the movie itself exists in a similar state. Any disturbing implications of Gloria’s situation — any ethical quandaries, psychological insights or genuinely shocking circumstances — are kept in check. What happens around her is horrible, but not so horrible as to stand in the way of her ultimate triumph.
After a wild shootout in a Tijuana nightclub, Suzu disappears, and Gloria, who saw some of the gunmen when they sneaked in through a bathroom window, finds herself first in the custody of a kingpin named Lino (Ismael Cruz Córdova) and then face to face with a D.E.A. agent named Brian (Matt Lauria). This is a distinction without much of a difference. Neither one is very nice to her — though Lino tries for something like gallantry — and they may not even be on opposite sides of the law. But Gloria is stuck with Lino, who calls her “Chula” and occasionally touches her. He doesn’t go any further, apparently in the hopes of seducing his captive.
Instead, the brutality of his gang and their rivals — directed against minor characters — is depicted with a mixture of sensationalism and squeamishness that feels sleazy and dishonest. Sex trafficking and wanton murder are part of their business, but “Miss Bala” keeps a safe, titillating distance from the worst of it. The fact that nearly all the characters are Mexican or Mexican-American hardly lessens the sense that we are watching a parade of caricatures and clichés. The denouement suggests we are also watching the first episode in a franchise, but even that, while ridiculous, hardly seems shocking.