There’s a scene about halfway into this ludicrous melodrama where Wanda De Jesus rushes out the front door of her suburban Connecticut home, brandishing a pistol in each hand to protect her children against a couple of thuggish hit-men who’ve come to wipe them all out and shouting “Bring it on!” She’s suddenly become a Puerto Rican version of Pam Grier’s seventies blaxploitation hot chick, and you suspect that, at least in this moment, writer-director Franc. Reyes is coming at us with tongue planted firmly in cheek. But it’s an isolated instant, because elsewhere “Illegal Tender” takes itself much seriously—with disastrous results. What this trashy movie about the Puerto Rican gangster life—and family values—brings isn’t thrills or insight but unintended hilarity.
At the center of the story is Wilson DeLeon, Jr. (Rick Gonzalez), a brooding twenty-one-year old student who seems more interested in his hot car (a speeding boom-box that he’s shown driving around interminably) and his hot girlfriend Aria (Dania Ramirez) than much else. This attitude-rich, self-righteous guy (who automatically disapproves of any fellow his mom gets involved with) is presented as a really intelligent kid, especially in math—but seems never to have computed how he and his little bro Randy (Antonio Ortiz) have been kept in upper-middle-class luxury by his single mother Millie (De Jesus) despite the fact the fact that she’s never worked. But we already suspect the answer, because a prologue has shown that his father (Manny Perez) was a drug-dealer killed on the very night his son was born by two pistol-packing hoes, leading Millie to go into hiding outside the city with her kid.
The plot kicks in when Millie is recognized by a gang-related woman one day in a supermarket, prompting her to announce her intention to move hurriedly once again. The sullen Wilson refuses to go with her, leading to a loony sequence in which mom tells him all about his father’s past, reveals they’ve been living on a couple of million bucks she absconded with two decades earlier, and shows him a cabinet filled with guns downstairs, all intended to defend against thugs she knows will be sent by Puerto Rican drug lord Javier Cordero (Gary Perez) to kill them all. Wilson still refuses to leave, which leads to an even funnier sequence in which he and Aria are attacked by a couple of the most bumbling hit-persons imaginable and shoo them off with guns and knives.
The rest of the movie is taken up with Wilson’s travels to San Juan to negotiate with Cordero and a final confrontation involving the two men and Millie, which includes a laughable revelation concerning the reason behind Javier’s obsession with killing them.
“Illegal Tender” is obviously not “The Godfather,” Puerto Rican-style: it’s pure B-movie hokum that might once have been half a drive-in double feature and even today could make for campy late-night cable fodder but is absurdly out of place on the big screen. Technically it tries to hide its threadbare production, captured in blah cinematography by Frank Byers, beneath a barrage of pulsating music and flashy colors, but Reyes’ bumbling direction is beyond concealment. So is the atrocious acting. The camera doesn’t take kindly to spindly Gonzalez, who might make a convincing extra in long shots but up close comes across like the uncomfortable lead in a poor high-school drama production. De Jesus is more of a pro, of course, but she’s relegated here to striking proper poses in tight outfits. As for the rest, apart from Ramirez, who’s as amateurish as Gonzalez as Wilson’s understandably concerned girlfriend, the guys and gals merely preen, smirk and sulk to meet the demands of Reyes’ dumb script.
“Illegal Tender” is produced by John Singleton, who perhaps thought that Reyes could pull off something with the grit and impact of his own “Boyz N the Hood.” No such luck. This is a cheesy, goofy combination of family melodrama and gangster cliché that strains not only credulity but patience. At about the eighty-minute mark, after a particularly bloody contretemps, momma Millie weeps, “Oh God, I want this to end!” So will you.