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A considerable improvement over his messy 2002 gangster drama, “Empire,” Franc. Reyes’ “Illegal Tender” is quite an entertaining genre piece boasting a terrifically sinewy lead performance from Wanda De Jesus.
It may be another mob-related movie, but this one is better focused, storytelling-wise, with a more plausible plot twist and far fewer caricatures than last time out.
Although writer-director Reyes still has a weakness for melodrama, De Jesus, playing a fiercely protective mother raising her two sons in an affluent New England neighborhood when her late husband’s drug-dealing past catches up with them, holds those impulses in check through sheer conviction.
The result is a late-summer crowd rouser that could generate a respectable chunk of legal tender from its young, Hispanic-targeted demographic.
After a brief, situation-setting flashback, the action moves 21 years ahead to an upscale Connecticut suburb where De Jesus’ Millie DeLeon lives with her two sons: college-age Wilson (Rick Gonzalez) and his much younger half-brother, Randy (Antonio Ortiz).
Wilson’s still at that age where his single mom can do no right, especially where her choice in boyfriends in concerned, but he’s also getting tired of her abruptly pulling up stakes with little warning and heading for a fresh start in a brand new city.
Millie is set to bolt again after a chance grocery store run-in with a woman from her past, only this time Wilson wants an explanation before he agrees to flee.
Millie tells him what we already know from the prelude — that his father, Wilson Sr. (Manny Perez), was a New York drug dealer who was gunned down by his double-crossing associates.
Whatever bad blood there was between Wilson Sr. and the mob has extended to his widow, who has been outrunning and/or outgunning would-be assassins ever since.
This time, however, Millie doesn’t have to go it alone, as Wilson Jr. takes up the cause, going mano a mano with the kingpin ordering the hit, the powerful Puerto Rican nightclub owner Choco (Tego Calderon).
By keeping the mother-son loyalty element at the forefront, Reyes is able to pile on all the obligatory gangster bling while holding audience involvement right until the final (gun)shot.
He’s also done a good job of flipping around — or at least toning down — some of the stereotypes that weighed down “Empire.”
But at the end of the day, what makes “Illegal Tender” a particularly lively ride is De Jesus, who, knowing she’s been handed one of those flashy roles that only comes around once so often, grabs it by the horns and charges out with guns blazing. She never loses sight of those maternal underpinnings that lend her character a refreshingly fuller dimension.
Following her lead, Gonzalez (“Coach Carter”) brings a youthful righteousness to the part of the headstrong son. Musician Calderon effectively underplays the resident heavy.
Production values for the John Singleton-produced film, shot in New York and Puerto Rico, are all on the money, though Heitor Pereira demonstrates an itchy trigger finger in a score that greets every tense moment with an unnecessary amount of sound and fury.
Universal Pictures and New Deal Entertainment present a John Singleton production
Director-screenwriter: Franc. Reyes
Producer: John Singleton
Executive producers: Dwight Williams, Preston L. Holmes
Director of photography: Frank Byers
Production designer: Keith Brian Burns
Music: Heitor Pereira
Costume designer: Rahimah Yoba
Editor: Tony Ciccone
Wilson DeLeon Jr.: Rick Gonzalez
Millie DeLeon: Wanda De Jesus
Ana: Dania Ramirez
Wilson DeLeon Sr.: Manny Perez
Randy: Antonio Ortiz
Young Millie: Jessica Pimentel
Choco: Tego Calderon
Running time — 108 minutes
MPAA rating: R
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