“Bordertown” straddles two realms: the worthy and the kitsch. Drama reteams helmer Gregory Nava (“El Norte”) with Jennifer Lopez, whose career he helped launch with “Selena,” to tell the story about a femme journalist who journeys to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to investigate why over 400 murders of women in the area have remained unsolved — a real-life negligence of justice that deserves further attention. Unfortunately, the flimsy conspiracy theories floated here, coupled with pic’s trite thriller plotting, risk trivializing these atrocities while it obfuscates their causes. “Bordertown” remains currently stateless, without a U.S. distributor, but J-Lo’s name may yet secure pic a berth.
Although the phenomenon remains scandalously underreported in the North American media, it’s an actual fact, as explained in pic’s opening crawl, that since 1993 the number of women murdered, many after brutal rapes, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, has risen from about three a year to three a month. Amnesty International (whose Web site gets a big plug in end credits of “Bordertown”) and various women’s organizations have been actively campaigning for increased police investigation into the crimes, which have spread to neighboring Chihuahua. Many of the victims have been women between the ages of 15 and 20.
Plot follows off-the-shelf narrative arc in which a hard-bitten journalist, usually a U.S. citizen, finds spiritual redemption and self-awareness by exposure to suffering in a developing nation. Hack heroine here is Lauren Adrian (Jennifer Lopez, of Puerto Rican descent), an ambitious Chicago-based newspaper journalist whose editor (Martin Sheen) insists she write something about the Juarez murders. Lauren insists she barely speaks Spanish, but, on the promise she’ll get the foreign correspondent gig when she gets back, off she flies.
In Juarez, she hooks up with former lover and one-time colleague Alfonso Diaz (Spain’s Antonio Banderas), whom she used to work with in El Paso, Texas. Diaz is now the editor of fictional paper El Sol de Juarez, which persists in reporting the murders despite persecution by the authorities who want Diaz to shut up and stop rocking the boat.
Lauren’s path crosses with that of Eva (Mexican star Maya Zapata, the only Mexican thesp in a leading role here), a young Mexican woman who was brutally raped in pic’s opening reel by a bus driver (Ireneo Alvarez) and a man with a distinctive scar (Rene Rivera) who, thinking her dead, buried her in the desert. In a striking sequence, she rises from her shallow grave and walks home to her shanty town, and later decides the only way to stay safe is to seek sanctuary at El Sol.
Determined to help Eva, Lauren finds a safe house for her at the home of wealthy campaigner Teresa Casillas (Brazilian-born Sonia Braga) and starts searching for the bus driver and the scarred man, whom Eva calls “El Diablo.” But someone doesn’t want them to find out the truth or expose the culprits, and soon Diaz is arrested and the two young women find themselves constantly menaced and threatened.
It’s crucial to the pic’s political agenda that Eva is a “maquiladora,” an employee of one of the many huge factories making consumer goods such as computers and TV sets that have sprouted up along the U.S.-Mexican border since the introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The terrible conditions of many of these factories was profiled recently in well-regarded 2006 docu “Maquilopolis.”
Script here implies that all 400 of the recorded cases (film suggests possibly up to 5,000) of the slain women were maquiladoras, and that the failure of local law enforcement to investigate the crime is, in some shadowy way, connected to the (mostly U.S.-owned) companies themselves, at best because protecting the workers’ lives isn’t profitable, at worst because powerful capitalists themselves are responsible for the murders.
“Bordertown” builds a passionate and justified condemnation not just of the violence against women in the area, but uses this misleading statement of the facts to launch a more scattershot attack against NAFTA itself and the exploitation of Mexican labor that’s been allowed to metastasize in its name. Result is neither convincing agitprop nor convincing political science, or even accurate reportage. Possible co-factors or causes of the real crime spree, such as rife drug-related criminality, domestic violence largely ignored by the authorities, and the possibility that at least some of the culprits may be U.S. citizens crossing the border to kill for kicks, are not explored here.
But then any of the above would muddy the waters of pic that wants its story told in simplistic black-and-white hues — or rather gritty, desaturated ones captured by its high-definition lensing. (Good work on the part of DP Reynaldo Villalobos.)
Politics aside and considered strictly as a thriller, “Bordertown” is only fair-to-poor. Helming by Nava is better than his script, which resorts to too many corny lines (Lauren’s editor’s gushing praise for her article’s “incredible humanity” reaped guffaws at Berlin press screening caught). Atrociously sentimental flashbacks to Lauren’s childhood detract rather than enhance, but at least his action sequences are suitably racy, pacing is fine and pic’s overall look is authentic without wallowing in the squalor.
Nava even coaxes first passable perf from Lopez in many years, although she still looks too fussily groomed, even in chinos and slouchy shirt, to pass for a ruthlessly determined newshound. Even after she’s been through a fire and almost raped, her mascara is still perfect in the morning after. Financial backing from Lopez’s shingle Nuyorican films may be reason the star’s vanity feels indulged here, even though pic would seem to be trying to rebrand Lopez as a tougher, grittier thesp these days, in the wake of several flops in mainstream, studio movies.