If it had a smaller budget and its theatrical prints were marred with scratches and debris, Illegal Tender might pass for the first half of a skuzzy, exploitative drive-in double feature. As it currently stands, however, Franc. Reyes' follow-up to Empire will have to make do delivering silly, shallow B-movie nonsense to fancy-schmancy multiplexes. A Hispanic crime saga unable to fully compensate for its amateurish performances, awkward dialogue, and hypocrisy regarding a criminal lifestyle that's supposedly condemned even as it's lustily glorified, Reyes' film is far more sizzle than substance. Nightclub grinding, champagne sipping, and guns cocking - these are a few of the director's favorite things, all of which receive the lion's share of attention throughout his tale of a family trying to fight back against a gangster who won't let them live in peace. Still, nothing in this goofy pic receives more TLC than star Wanda De Jesus, a brawny yet sexy badass Latina mama cast from a shoot-now, ask-questions-never Foxy Brown mold. Listen closely enough while she's commanding the screen, and you can almost hear Blaxploitation-loving Quentin Tarantino panting.
Decked out in tight shirts that reveal an equal amount of cleavage and bicep muscle, De Jesus plays Millie DeLeon, a Connecticut mother of 21-year-old collegian Wilson Jr. (Rick Gonzalez) and young Randy (Antonio Ortiz) whose drug dealer husband - as shown in a lengthy prologue set in 1986 Brooklyn - died at the hands of his duplicitous cohorts on the night Wilson Jr. was born. And by cohorts, I mean two voluptuous hitwomen in low-cut tops, mini skirts, and high heels -- a laughable pair who don't look remotely comfortable wielding firearms yet nonetheless work at the behest of kingpin Javier Cordero (Gary Perez). That Illegal Tender thinks it extremely clever to cross-cut between Wilson Sr.'s (Manny Perez) murder and Wilson Jr.'s birth - One life exits, another life enters! Whoa! - is emblematic of the film, which can't go five minutes without having a character articulate some obvious fact or simplistic theme. Grace is not the film's strong suit.
But trashy - albeit sporadic - fun is. In this era of extreme hyper-editing, Reyes' desire to use medium-shot long takes for conversations is refreshing, even if it has the unintended effect of highlighting his actors' affectedness, especially in the case of Gonzalez and his protagonist's irrationally doting girlfriend Ana (Dania Ramirez), whose interest in the loyal but bland Wilson Jr. remains bewildering. Yet the director's adoration for the enticing Puerto Rican nightlife - and specifically, its flashy, seedier elements - is infectious. Having discovered, much to his astonishment, that dear old dad was a pusher and that Cortez has been trying to kill him and his mom for the past two decades, Wilson Jr. travels to the tropical island for a face-to-face with the mobster, an excuse for Reyes to linger on the scantily clad dancers writhing and shaking their thang in Cortez's club. Arguments, bloodshed, familial tears, and a few "twists" ensue, but it's admittedly tough to concentrate on particular plot points when the filmmaker so brazenly and persistently places a premium on gaudy titillation.
Illegal Tender makes a pass at positing familial bonds as paramount, though such points are made less convincingly by Wilson Jr. and mom's heart-to-hearts than by scenes like a front lawn shootout that ends with fiercely protective Millie coldly executing her clan's would-be killers. The only reason any non-gunplay material works at all - and to be clear, it works no more than thirty percent of the time - is De Jesus, whose mixture of mature sexiness, unwavering devotion, and blunt mercilessness when her flock is threatened proves far more noteworthy than any of the dreary, unbelievable developments in Reyes' monotonously literal-minded script. No matter that her Millie has provided Wilson Jr. with a swanky Connecticut life via preposterously savvy investments (of Microsoft stock!) founded on her husband's dirty income. Or that the character is forced to defend her spouse's illicit profession with pat nonsense like "He was a good person who made bad choices." Or that she too often calls Wilson Jr. "son." When De Jesus is demanding respect, doling out love, or dishing out lethal justice, Illegal Tender almost - almost - seems like an admirable heir to its fast, cheap and out-of-control grindhouse ancestors.