Bordertown (2007) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for violence including a brutal rape, sexuality, nudity and language
Running Time: 110 min.
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Antonio Banderas, Maya Zapata, Martin Sheen, Sonia Braga, Rene Rivera, Juan Diego Botto, Randall Batinkoff, Ireneo Alvarez, Kate del Castillo, Juanes
Director: Gregory Nava
Screenplay: Gregory Nava
Bordertown is a fictional film based on real-life events that transpired in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, whereby, over the course of several years, dozens (if not hundreds) of Mexican women have been kidnapped, raped, and murdered, and little, if anything, is done about it. Many of the women work in a malquiladora, an assembly line factory, where they labor in substandard conditions for long hours and little pay. Most of these malquiladoras are owned by American companies, utilizing the freedoms afforded in the NAFTA trade agreement, where they can pay workers only $5 a day and offer no benefits. With corporations saving billions on costs, a scandal that will draw attention to the exploitation going on in these factories is not something they want to shed light on. Subsequently, the government, whose politicians are in the pocket of the corporations that own these malquiladores, turns a blind eye to the problems, news stories are buried, and the women become sitting ducks for the criminal elements, who can seemingly do what they please without penalty.
Jennifer Lopez (Monster-in-Law, Shall We Dance) plays Lauren Adrian, an up-and-coming Chicago newspaper reporter who has big dreams of becoming a top foreign correspondent, which she will most likely get once she finishes covering a hot scoop in Juarez, Mexico. After a rash of murders have taken place, mostly covered up by the local authorities, a survivor has emerged in the form of a 16-year-old factory worker named Eva (Zapata, Santos Peregrinos), who was left for dead by the two men who raped her. With the help of a local newspaper man named Diaz (Banderas, Take the Lead), Lauren has to get to the bottom of the story before the authorities, as well as the bad guys, find them first. What she finds is a corrupt system propagated by unfair labor practices, where workers are offered absolutely no protection from the police, the government agencies, or the companies that they slave for. Lauren's piece might blow the cover wide open, but only if she and Eva live to tell about it.
Writer-director Gregory Nava (Why Do Fools Fall in Love?, Mi Familia), who directed Lopez in her 1997 breakthrough film, Selena. spins this tale with an eye on bringing attention to this serious problem, and he does deserve praise for at least trying to do what he can to give these women a voice. Unfortunately, as heart-wrenching as the reality is, the film that he has made falls short of being honorable. Many of the problems reside in Nava's directorial style, which never is able to settle into a defined groove, alternating between a tense drama and a sleazy thriller in ways that work at odds with one another. It's not a particularly attractive film either, with intentionally saturated colors and some editing techniques such as jumps, fades, and short cuts. It's difficult not to feel distanced to the story due to the incessant camera techniques, over-directed to the point of constant distraction.
It isn't all bad. Nava's writing is workable, and perhaps with a more visionary director, something more compelling could have been made out of this disturbing story. Although many viewers, and even some critics, enjoy deriding J-Lo in nearly every effort she is in lately, and while this film will do nothing to get her rapidly dissolving career back on track, it won't be due to her role in it -- she gives a commendable performance in a role written with her in mind. Fine supporting roles are given to some good performers such as Banderas, Sheen (The Departed), and Braga (Empire). Lost in the shuffle, but with the second largest role in the film, Maya Zapata manages to hold her own with the vets.
Nava's choice to film these events in the form of a clichéd thriller isn't the best option, as it tends to undercut the grim realities of what happened in the guise of entertainment. Surely, it's a story that needs to be told, but I think that keeping things on the real would have been harrowing enough without the need to constantly embellish the story for additional sensationalism. There's something to be said for taking the high road when you have an important mission in mind; it saps the credibility of the story when 85% of the events is pure fabrication based on speculation and politically-tainted observations.
Fans of Lopez should enjoy seeing her in a role that actually showcases that she actually can act when not signing on for fluffy glamour pieces, even if she seems just too Hollywood for the part. Nevertheless, I think that, even though the film fails to live up to its potential, she acquits herself well (she also serves as the film's producer). While Nava's film offers something to think about afterward, it's a disappointment that its only the fact that the film is inspired by true tragedies that it has even a smidge of credibility. It's difficult to slam a film that seeks to bring attention to a definite human rights problem that has no easy solutions because of public ignorance, but with such overreaching themes and heavy-handed direction, the amount of manipulation involved throughout erodes nearly all claims to authenticity. The lives of the women lost deserve more than to be used as fodder for a mediocre b-movie thriller.
©2007 Vince Leo