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Illegal Tender

The family that slays together stays together is the rather dubious moral of this glossy but empty-headed thriller from Empire builder Franc Reyes.


What do you get when a small-time crook gets whacked at the exact same time his baby boy's born? Yes, yet another crime story that's driven by a quest for vengeance. A straight-A student living in a swanky Connecticut suburb, Wilson De Leon, Jr. (Rick Gonzalez) knows nothing about his late father. Nor, for that fact, does he ever wonder why his widowed mother Millie (Wanda De Jesus) insists on moving his family from one town to another at a moment's notice. Unbeknownst to Wilson and his younger brother, Millie's been on the run since her husband died a bloody death for reasons left unsaid until Illegal Tender's last bullet is fired. After she's spotted by one of her pursuers, Millie rushes home to pack her family's bags. Only this time, Wilson wants to know what's going on. Then he decides to stand his ground. Which he does—at least until he comes to his senses and realizes that he's putting himself and his girlfriend (Dania Ramirez) in harm's way. Still, Wilson's not ready to let his loved ones be terrorized forever. Despite Millie's protests, Wilson heads off to Puerto Rico to take care of matters once and for all. And Illegal Tender quickly goes from vaguely interesting to boneheaded as soon as Wilson arrives in Puerto Rico. Oh, and producer John Singleton deserves to be reprimanded for allowing writer/director Franc Reyes to rip off his own revenge saga, Four Brothers. Guess Singleton thought what worked once would work again. How wrong he is.


One look at Rick Gonzalez (Coach Carter) and it's hard to believe he could punch a timecard, let alone a thug willing to snap the skinny kid in two. He makes Shia LaBeouf look like Harrison Ford. Then again, Gonzalez's playing a scrawny little momma's boy who's all brains and no brawn—at least until Millie's past catches up with her. So it makes no difference that Gonzalez isn't physically imposing. The problem is that Gonzalez never comes across as book smart as his character is supposed be. Nor does he display much in the way of street smarts, especially when Wilson starts to get his hands dirty. It hardly comes as a surprise to learn that Wilson never questioned how his mother always had huge amounts of cash at her disposal, even though she rarely held down a job. And, thanks to Gonzalez, you never get the sense that Wilson's ever one step ahead of his father's killers. On the other hand, the tough-as-nails Wanda De Jesus is such a commanding presence that you know immediately she's capable of breaking the neck of anyone who tries to harm her family. If Quentin Tarantino ever needs another no-nonsense cougar to bust a few skulls, he should look no further than De Jesus. Dania Ramirez (The Sopranos) also looks like she could beat the snot out of Gonzalez, but all she gets to do is express concern for Wilson's safety. In his film debut, Puerto Rican rapper Tego Calderón lends a little edge to the proceedings as a gangster who stands between Wilson and his quarry.


Illegal Tender wants us to believe that Wilson has what it takes to go all Four Brothers on his father's killers. That would be fine, if Illegal Tender took its time transforming Wilson from naïve college student to angel of vengeance. Instead, it's taken for granted that Wilson's his father's son, that all it takes is a couple of practice shots at some glass bottles to turn a boy into a man. Even then, Wilson's not much of a threat to anyone. This could be overlooked if director Franc Reyes at least gave Illegal Tender some vim and vigor. Instead, Illegal Tender lacks urgency, even when Millie and her family are fleeing for their lives. Everything falls apart once Reyes unnecessarily shifts the action to Puerto Rico. You expect Wilson to at least jump a few hurdles in his bid to find his father's killers. But that's not the case. Doors open quickly and easily for Wilson. Where's the suspense in that? The motive behind the murder is not revealed until the end, but it only will make you shrug your shoulders in apathy. Also, after raising the moral implications of living off illegal gains, Reyes conveniently brushes aside such a weighty matter in favor of sending mother and son into battle together. Yes, Illegal Tender is filled with such warmhearted Mommy and Me moments of bonding. "Sometimes you've got to play the only chips you've got," Wilson's father says minutes before he's killed. With Illegal Tender, Reyes makes a real bad bet with the precious few chips he has and comes up a big loser.

Bottom Line rated this film 1 star.