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Hipster Holy Grail: Senorita Justice (2004)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Although the title implies that you'd at the very least have some Mexploitation fun - if not full-on T&A / mindless vigilante violence - Senorita Justice delivers very little joy.  In fact, I'm not sure it even delivers very much justice.

My Rating: 1.5 / 5

The Plot Summary

The film opens with not just one, but two montages.  The first one makes at least a little bit of sense - we see some police officers investigating the scene of a shooting in a rough-and-tumble Latin community.  There's miscellaneous sound bites intertwined with blurry footage and opening credits to let us know that some shit's gone down.

Then the movie goes into what looks like a low-budget trailer with a faint '80s vibe as footage from the rest of the movie plays in tiny little window boxes chopped up all over the screen.  And the opening credits continue.  It's a tad disconcerting.  I think this is the movie's attempt to get you pumped and ready to strap in for a powerhouse action ride - which is tragically telling as to how exciting the rest of it ends up being.

After the credits, we fade into a nebulous business deal between big-time muckety-muck Charles (Luis Garaza), apparently a Trumpesque real estate developer of some sort, and some of his white rich guy comrades.  Charles wraps up some business and then goes to flirt with his hot, young secretary / occasional sex friend / protagonist of our movie, Ana Rios (Yancy Mendia).

I'll get into this more later, but consider this strike one for Ana's badassery.  She's supposed to be a sexy, deadly Latinx ass-kicker who takes no shit and kills your organs in alphabetical order - and she's introduced to us as the secretary that some white blowhard occasionally fucks on the side.  Is that building up to some greater message about her sense of self-worth or maybe conflicted feelings she might have about her place in the world?  Senorita Justice probably thinks so, but whatever message it's trying to say is about to get lost in the wash.

Charles' flirting is interrupted when Vanessa Ortiz (Mirtha Michelle), Ana's childhood friend from the 'hood, barges into the office to deliver some tragic news: Ana's brother, Juan, was killed.  And so begins Ana's hero journey back home so she can attend his funeral.

At the wake, she bumps into Hector Fernandez (played by a guy credited solely as "Kalex"), her ex-boyfriend from her reckless teen years when she was (supposedly) in a gang.  Hector was Juan's friend and Vanessa explains that he was present the night Juan got shot, but Ana sits on that information for a little while.

And then... nothing happens.  Ana has a lot of weepy, overacted conversations with friends, Vanessa acts like a hot-head, Hector mopes and broods sexily, and occasionally we see Detectives Christine Garcia (Edith Gonzalez) and Roselyn Martinez (Eva Longoria, in what was either volunteer work or possibly her last role right before she was propelled to superstardom).  Garcia and Martinez are investigating Juan's murder, but since Ana would have nothing to do if they were able to crack the case, they make no headway.

So, after Ana gets tired of doing nothing, she decides she's going to ovary up and deliver some senorita-style justice.  And she does that by bugging Hector for information.  Unfortunately, Hector doesn't give up any truly useful details.  But we do find out two things:

1) He lives in a slum / apartment building that is at risk of being bought out by a mega-rich company and torn down, except he has evidence that the building is a historical landmark.  His testimony to that fact is why the building is still standing... somehow.  All he has to do is go to City Hall in a couple days and sign an affidavit to that effect.

2) Hector's been having some Mickey Mouse turf bullshit with a rival gang-ish guy named Mo Gutierez (Michael Francis).  Mo shows up now and again to look tough and get into a fistfight with Hector.

Later, Vanessa confronts Hector and reveals that she's deeply in love with him, which she demonstrates by going down on him in his van.  Hector enjoys the casual fooling around, but it's clear his heart belongs to Ana - apparently that thing they had back when they were 17 was true love, and they're only just now realizing it.

So... stuff continues to not happen, and then Ana has sex with Hector.

Then Ana goes to interrogate Mo, because probably Juan was involved with their pissing match.  Maybe.  Mo gives no useful information, but he does try to rape Ana, so, y'know... there's that.  Ana beats him up and leaves his place, and after she's gone, we get to meet Manny Sanchez (Tito Puente Jr.), another sleazy business type who may or may not have met Ana in an earlier scene.  Sanchez has been giving orders to Mo and apparently contracted a hit on Hector some time ago.

Now, you as the reader can probably see where this is going pretty easily.  Business type dude pays Mo to put a hit on Hector, Hector is the sole reason a shady business of some sort can't buy his slum building - probably they're connected, right?  But for whatever reason, Ana doesn't see that.  And I guess I could kind of understand, because her motivation is supposed to be finding out why Juan was killed, not whatever bullshit Hector's dealing with.  On the other hand, we're an hour into the movie at this point and she's supposed to be totally in love with Hector, who has given her no other information except that Mo might be a lead, which means you'd think she would follow this plot thread at some point.... right?

Nah.  Not really.  Mo gets shot in a drive-by and dies, and then later Hector gets shot in a drive-by and dies, and Ana's really sad about it.  Then she starts to pack up her bags to leave, and then Vanessa comes and harangues her about "running away from her roots" again.  And Ana feels even more sad, so she finally decides to go investigate Sanchez.  This is now an hour ten deep into a movie that only runs an hour twenty-five.

So.  Turns out Sanchez was behind Hector's murder (duh) because he wanted to buy that building that Hector was protecting (double duh).  And Vanessa decides to help Ana kidnap Sanchez and get revenge for Hector's murder.  So, they do that - they get Sanchez in a car trunk and take him somewhere quiet for a nice, moonlit interrogation/execution.

But then, at the last second, Vanessa decides to turn a gun on Ana and reveal one of the dumbest plot twists ever: not only has she been working for Sanchez for a long time, she killed Juan all along.  Yup, turns out Vanessa was insanely jealous that Hector might not love her forever and ever, so she was trying to kill Hector, but then Juan stepped in the way at the last second and died accidentally.  Vanessa shoots herself in the head to atone for her sins, and that leaves Ana free to further interrogate Sanchez about his business dealings...

...but wait.  Let's back up.

Point one.  If Vanessa's motivation was just to stalk/murder Hector all this time, why didn't she either kill Ana or Hector or both when she found out they were sleeping together?  In fact, why didn't she kill Hector the next day if in fact she's supposed to be working for Sanchez and killing Hector is his stated goal?  And if her true motivation is that she's a Crazy Psycho Stalker Bitch who loooooves her some Hector corpse, why is she even working for Sanchez at all?  She has two motivations here and a failure to deliver on either, despite multiple opportunities.  Listen, either you're actually a CPSB who'll pull the trigger, or you're conflicted and you wouldn't be working for Sanchez - you can't have it both ways.

Point two.  Despite point one, the only reason Vanessa is introducing all of this exposition now is to explain away Juan's murder, which you'll remember is the only reason Ana is even in this movie at all.  So by killing herself, she's essentially become a background character who sapped away the movie's primary conflict in the least satisfying way possible in a movie with "Justice" in the title.

Point three.  Knowing what we now know about Vanessa, there is no logical reason why she would have A) given Ana any information to lead her on her investigation into Juan's murder in the first place, or B) compelled her to stay behind and keep investigating when Ana was planning to leave just a few hours ago.

So, was Vanessa's plan just to kill herself in front of Ana as dramatically and irrationally as possible?  Did she have giant flowcharts and maps with red string connecting data points in a workroom in her basement while she tried to figure out the precise moment and means by which she could shoot herself in the head, and she realized her plans wouldn't work out unless she was constantly yelling at Ana about her "roots?"

Anyway, Ana interrogates Sanchez, then kills him.  She finds out that Sanchez was working for Charles's company all along, and in fact, Charles is the one who put the deal together in the first place.  He was also working with the Yakuza for reasons.

The stage is set for a final confrontation in Charles's office building.  Ana goes over there to kill him, but first she has a dramatic fight with a Yakuza assassin who's acting as his bodyguard.  Ana kills the bodyguard, and then Charles is going to shoot Ana, but Detective Garcia shows up at the last minute and shoots Charles in the back.  And then Ana is free to go because of reasons.

In the last shot of the movie, Ana tells Garcia and Martinez that she's going to stay in the neighborhood and open a new law firm to provide criminal defense services.  Garcia and Martinez seem pretty happy about that, despite being cops.  The End.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

Oh, man.  There is too much you can complain about here.  And the sad thing is, it doesn't feel right to tear it apart - Senorita Justice is one of those low-budget movies that feels too personal or amateurish to take to task.  Criticizing it is going to make me feel like I'm ripping one of my old high school students a new one.  That's not cool, even if it is deserved.

But that's what I'm here for, so let's commence.

We can start with the main character herself.  Ana's back story is that she ran with gangs back as a teenager, but when she was busted by the cops, she chose to join the Marines instead of going to jail.  Since then, she cleaned up her act and was discharged with honors, then parlayed that experience into law school and became a successful lawyer, which is around when we meet up with her.

Right off the bat, she's miscast.  Yancy Mendia simply does not have the physical presence needed to be a badass.  Hell - not even presence.  Just confidence.  If she could just hold her shoulders up the right way or deliver any line with legitimate fire under her breath, or if she could maintain believable eye contact, maybe I'd be willing to buy it.  When she holds a handgun, she looks like she's about to drop it - and when she fires, she flinches noticeably.  This is supposed to be our ex-marine, ex-gang-member, ghetto ex-pat?  C'mon, Senorita Justice.  Selena Gomez is more of a badass.

Now, I don't want to go picking on Ms. Mendia alone.  Almost everybody in the movie is an amateur actor, which means they're almost universally awkward and stilted.  Except for Eva Longoria, who's barely in it - and what's amazing is just how clear her talent is even when saying total throwaway lines.  Like, I've never given Ms. Longoria much thought one way or another, but in this movie she stands out like a titan.  You hear her ask, "Did you get the files?" and purely by context, you want her to win an Oscar.  But now I'm starting to get mean.  Let's ignore the acting - I can forgive that.  Acting is tough and if you're watching a movie full of the director's friends and well-wishers, you have to make some allowances.

But no matter who played her, Ana just doesn't have a good hook in this movie.  Her primary conflict - getting revenge for her brother - gets buried early on when she starts to get involved in Hector's nonsense, and the inner conflict that's supposed to drive her is muddled at best.  See, the whole thing is that after working in criminal defense for awhile, she moved over to corporate law and now works for Charles and/or other white businessmen types.  So, the implication is that she's a stuck-up snob who has abandoned her Latin roots to sell out to The White Man.

The problem is, Ana never really acts like she's "forgotten" anything.  I could see no difference between the way she acts when she's supposed to be in Senorita Mode versus how she acts at any other time - white boy office included.  For that matter, she never really acts like she has any of her other back story, either.  She doesn't act like she was ever in a gang, she doesn't act like she was in the Marines, and she sure as hell doesn't act like a lawyer.  She's instead so invested in personal, occasionally petty interpersonal drama with her friends that she seems more like a slightly tanner ditz from a crappy 90210 reboot.

And from the other end of it, very little of the rest of the cast makes a big deal about it, either.  Race and culture are briefly touched on, but it feels like an afterthought.  Even the building Hector is trying to preserve doesn't seem to be anything special - you never get to see it very clearly, and in the tight-cropped shots of the exterior it just looks like any other lame apartment building.  About the most anybody does is throw out a "cabron" or "puta" every couple of lines while salsa music plays in the background.

So what you end up with is a movie with a slightly ethnic flavor where two characters, Vanessa and Hector, keep throwing Ana's "betrayal" back in her face any time they're frustrated by who Ana is (or is not) having sex with.  The rest of the time, the whole "you forgot your roots" idea seems to be totally lost.  It feels like the kind of thing Vanessa throws at Ana out of petty, jealous spite, not out of any true interpersonal conflict.

And look, I know I don't have much of a place to talk from since I'm white as sin.  I'm not asking for anybody to be stereotypes or anything like that.  I'm just saying it's stupid to have one or two characters talk about the importance of their identity when it's clearly not a big deal to the movie at large.  It's like if Warrior never showed you any scenes of the brothers outside of the MMA competition.  There are important differences between those characters, and seeing how their relationship affects them both inside and outside of the ring is what makes that movie interesting.  But if you cut all that out and just gave us an hour and a half of MMA fighting, then what's the point?  Who could care?  Don't bother giving me your backstory if you're not going to use it.

To it's credit, Senorita Justice does set up a bit of a class divide, which is kinda nice.  It's a great place to work from if you want to present Ana as an outsider and I wish the movie had pushed that divide a lot more.  I'd love it if there was a thing where Ana drove a fancy car and had a Gucci purse or whatever, and later she tosses all that stuff aside to get shit done.  The movie does some of that - you do see Ana trade out her formal wear for a belly shirt and a doo-rag - but it just doesn't go far enough.  The transformation from Office Ana to Street Fighter Ana is like going from "red" to "scarlet."  Plus, Ana always looks like her shit's expensive.  She looks like she bought her street clothes from Louis Vuitton's "Urban Despair" collection.

There's other stuff in here that just doesn't work.  Action is clumsy and inorganic.  The sound editing is wonky and dialogue gets overshadowed by music.  Cinematography is often awkward, with taller actors' heads often getting cropped out of the frame.  And the pacing is just awful.  It takes Ana like an hour to start getting into full-on Justice Mode, and in the meantime there's soooooo much high school drama that you forget what movie you're supposed to be watching.

But now I just feel like a dickhead for being so negative, so let me see if I can come up with anything positive.  I can think of three nice things to say.

First, I appreciate that the plot is actually clear and straightforward.  Pacing and character issues aside, there were never any times when I felt lost or confused - and that's kind of surprising, given the budget.  Most low-profile movies like this tend to couch crucial details in dialogue that you can't hear, or they over-explain minute pieces of information while forgetting to build up the basics.  Not so with Senorita Justice.  Even if I didn't believe it, I always knew what was happening, and that matters.  (This is why I'm giving it a higher score than Fatal Justice.)

Second, for all my complaints about Ana's character, I do like that she is a competent heroine.  She is self-sufficient, motivated, and takes charge of situations.  There isn't nearly enough of her in Justice Mode, but when she gets to work, she does actually accomplish things.  It's a tug-of-war between believability and intent, though - due to the aforementioned editing, physicality, and technical issues, Ana is never watchable as an action hero, even though I like that they tried.  The movie's best moment is emblematic of exactly that.  At one point, Mo and his goons stooges surround Ana and cackle loudly that they're about to rape her.  (Low-budget movies sure do love rape.)  Instead of being rescued by somebody or any other contrivance, Ana just plain beats the shit out of them and leaves.  That's the kind of thing I was hoping for when I saw the title - only, y'know, filmed better.

Finally, some of the editing actually does work.  There are a couple of moments now and again where the director knew enough to realize that he couldn't film an action scene very well, so he wisely cut around the action instead.  For example, a thug will get up in Ana's face and pull out a knife or something, and Ana just narrows her eyes at him.  Cut to some interior shot, and you see Ana dragging the thug through the door by his ear.  That kinda thing.

Ultimately this is a movie hampered by its budget and experience.  With more money for effects and stunt men, better technical skills, and a screenplay that had a more clear feel for its identity, this would have been a totally fun action movie.  Instead, it looks like a C- student film - good enough that I'd say, "keep trying," but not good enough to recommend that anybody else ever watch it.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

It gets 40 cred for an obscurity bonus, with about 140 ratings on IMDb as of today.  I'll also give it another 15 point "you've probably never heard of them" bonus for the cast, even though it technically has Eva Longoria and Tito Puente Jr in it.

I'm also going to give it a 10 point pedigree bonus for the production company, Breakaway Films.  This might be a tad generous and short-sighted since I've not seen any of their other features, but Senorita Justice appears to have been shot on video and I'm getting a strong Vista Street Entertainment vibe from it.  The majority of the company's features appear to have been direct-to-video releases from 2003-2005, so I suspect there's probably more hipster gold in that lineup.

I'm also going to cheat a little bit here and give it a 5 point nostalgia bonus for anybody who worked at a video store back when this came out, as I did.  I remember frequently renting out the two copies of Senorita Justice that my Hollywood Video owned, and although I never watched it back then, I had always assumed it was probably not very good.  But seeing the cover art took me right back to those days, so that's kinda fun - although maybe it shouldn't count since my nostalgia is sincere and not ironic.  Hmm.  Getting a little too deep in the definition of cred here - I'm going to stick with my original plan.

And finally, I'm going to give it 5 cred for the title, because even if it doesn't deliver, it sure sounds like a hipster movie, don't it?

That all adds up to a respectable total of 75 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

Senorita Justice was released on DVD, and it seems there are plenty of copies still available.  But if you don't want to buy or rent the disc, you can also stream it on Amazon Prime for (basically) free.