Dir/scr: Gregory Nava. US. 2007. 112mins.

In Bordertown, directed by Gregory Nava, Jennifer Lopez plays a Chicago reporter who speaks no Spanish, but goes undercover as a Mexican worker in a Juarez sweatshop to investigate the brutal murders of hundreds of women. If you can believe this, you can believe much that is improbable in this violent earnest potboiler.

The US-Mexican border and illegal immigration are hot media issues right now, so an awkward script and overacting probably won't hurt this star-driven immigration melodrama at the US box office. With Lopez and Antonio Banderas playing intrepid journalists doing battle with US corporations and corrupt politicians, anti-Bush Latin America is a natural market, as are any foreign territories where Lopez and her many licensed products are desired by the youth audience.

Bordertown is based on real events within the broader murder wave in Juarez that has taken the lives of hundreds of female maquiladora (border factory) workers.

The action begins as Eva (Zapata) is raped, beaten and buried in a shallow grave by a bus driver and others. She survives to meet Lauren Adrian (Lopez), who jets in to probe the murder spree. Juarez's crusading newspaper editor is Alfonso Diaz (Banderas), Lopez's former colleague and lover from an El Paso paper. Together they fight police intimidation and trace Mexican plutocrats to the core of the murder wave.

To support free trade, the Mexicans bribe top US politicians, who in turn force Lauren's Chicago editor, Martin Sheen, to kill her story. (In a sub-plot bill-boarded in flashbacks, Lauren turns out to be child of Mexican farm-workers raised by nuns after her parents are murdered: the Berlin press audience, where the film played in competition, was in stitches.) Almost killed undercover in Juarez, she lives to see her attacker burned in a shantytown fire.

Lopez, Banderas and Sheen in the leads all compete to be more unconvincing as journalists, while Nava's script leaps from one violent spasm to another. With blonde American Lopez, America's best-known Latina, struggling to play a character who can't speak Spanish, Sheen screams on the phone as the presses roll in Chicago (straight out of The Front Page). Yet on one count the film defies predictability: the old love between Lopez and Banderas never rekindles.

Nava, who put border tensions on the big screen in El Norte (1983), brings directorial ardour to his polemical script. Between good and bad characters, the scant middle ground is occupied by Sheen as the cowardly editor who caves to political pressure.

Nava was precluded from shooting Bordertown in Juarez itself because the director and stars allegedly faced death threats from locals who felt implicated by the story. (One Berlin critic joked that the threats might well have come from people who had been forced to sit through the film.)

A Juarez shantytown and garish red light district constructed across the border in New Mexico outside Albuquerque are realistic enough not to detract from the story. Maquiladora operators in Nogales (Mexico), who shared the film's moral perspective, allowed Nava to shoot in vast plants that produced televisions and motors, giving the film another much-needed dose of reality.

Production companies/backers
Capitol Films
El Norte Productions

Gregory Nava
Simon Fields
David Bernstein

Executive Producers
Cary Epstein
Tracee Stanley Newell
Barbara Martinez Jitner
Fred Ulrich

Reynaldo Villalobos

Production design
Miguel Angel Alvarez

Padraic McKinley

Randy Spendlove

Main cast
Jennifer Lopez
Antonio Banderas
Martin Sheen
Maya Zapata
Sonia Braga
Irineo Alvarez