Review: Illegal Tender

Puerto Rican gangster tries to wipe out a Bronx family who once dealt drugs. Derivative crime melodrama with a simple-minded plot.

Pitched as a crime movie for and about Latinos, Illegal Tender proves that bad filmmaking doesn’t discriminate along racial lines. Alternating between torpid and laughable, it offers a vision of drug dealing as a battle between vengeful parents, with their honor-student offspring the victims. With its self-righteous sermonizing and ineptly staged gunfights, the movie isn’t manic enough to qualify as pulp or coherent enough to serve as a social critique.

An interminable prologue evokes the worst of the blaxploitation cycle of a previous generation: broken drug deals, double-crossing killers, blurry cinematography, thumping soundtrack. Illegal Tender simply substitutes one set of stereotypes for another: Latina hit girls with high hair and leather bustiers for African-American killers; Willie Colon instead of Curtis Mayfield.

For reasons left hidden until the climax, evil Puerto Rican druglord Javier Cordero (Gary Perez) is determined to kill not only drug dealer Wilson DeLeon, Sr. (Manny Perez), but Wilson’s entire family. But Javier hasn’t counted on Wilson’s wife Millie (Wanda De Jesús), a tough and brainy mother who will do anything to protect her children.

Twenty-one years later, Millie and her two sons are still hiding out, which in their case means living in an ostentatious McMansion in the suburbs of Connecticut and driving around with “DeLeon” vanity license plates. The junior Willie (Rick Gonzalez) has a 4.0 GPA, tutors his younger brother Randy (Antonio Ortiz), and says grace before meals. No doubt he looks both ways before crossing the street. Willie is dumbfounded to see his mother load a satchel with weapons from a basement safe, and bursts into a profanity-laden tirade when she reveals that his father was a drug dealer. Although Millie’s cover has been blown by a chance meeting in the frozen foods aisle of the local supermarket, Willie inexplicably refuses to flee with her.

Instead, he sets up house with his girlfriend Ana (Dania Ramirez), a college student with matrimony in mind. Willie manages to fend off an attack by two professional killers while Ana cowers under the basement stairs, her screeches and whimpers evidently inaudible to the assassins. Then he flies to Puerto Rico to deal with Javier. Several beatings and shootings later, Millie joins her son in fighting Javier to the finish.

The cast gets little help from writer and director Franc. Reyes, a music video veteran who was behind the equally heavy-handed Empire. The genuinely talented De Jesús acts as if she were competing for the title of “foxiest money-laundering mom in film,” while Gonzalez seems adrift throughout the film. At least he is less embarrassing than the badly outclassed reggaeton star Tego Calderón, who shows up briefly as a gang henchman.

Reyes, who cites Sidney Lumet among his inspirations, might be forgiven for over-reaching. But it could be time for producer John Singleton, whose recent projects include Black Snake Moan, to stop pretending that junk food has any nutritional value.

Cast: Rick Gonzalez, Wanda De Jesús, Dania Ramirez, Delilah Cotto, Gary Perez, Julie Carmen, Antonio Ortiz, Tego Calderón, Manny Perez, Jessica Pimentel.

Credits: Written and directed by Franc. Reyes. Produced by John Singleton. Executive producers: Dwight Williams, Preston L. Holmes. Director of photography: Frank Byers. Production designer: Keith Brian Burns. Film editor: Tony Ciccone. Costume designer: Rahima A. Yoba. Music by Heitor Pereira. A Universal Pictures and New Deal Entertainment presentation of a John Singleton production.

Universal/Color/2.35/Dolby Digital, DTS & SDDS/92 Mins./Rated R

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