Illegal Tender

2007, Movie, R, 108 mins


Produced by John Singleton for writer-director Franc. Reyes, this preposterous tale of crime-family values should be far more entertaining than it is.

The Bronx, 1985: Wilson DeLeon (Manny Perez) is summoned by his boss, drug lord Javier Cordero (Gary Perez), for a late-night rendezvous. Wilson's hugely pregnant wife, Millie (Wanda De Jesus), begs him not to go and reveals the financial management she's been doing in secret: She's invested Wilson's ill-gotten gains in local businesses, scrubbing away the blood and turning it into legitimate income... enough that they could leave the Bronx behind. But Wilson won't listen and is murdered by Cordero's gun-toting tarts, dying as Millie goes into labor. Knowing she isn't safe, Millie flees with her baby.

Connecticut, 2007: Millie lives in gated-community luxury with Wilson Jr. (Rick Gonzalez), an outstanding student at Danbury College, and Wilson's half brother, little Randy (Antonio Ortiz). Then Millie runs into an acquaintance from the old neighborhood at the supermarket. By the time Wilson gets home from school, she's got the car packed and is ready to go. Wilson's supposed smarts notwithstanding, he's never thought to ask where his single mom's money comes from or why they've moved repeatedly and suddenly since he was a child — he's been too busy driving around in his sharp car with adoring girlfriend Ana (Dania Ramirez) and griping about Millie's boyfriends. So he stands his ground and is stunned when mom opens the family closet and lets the skeletons come tumbling out: His dad was a drug dealer, she tells Wilson, which is why the basement safe is full of guns, one of which he'd better keep if he insists on staying. After the inevitable hit squad comes for him, Wilson delves deeply into his family's past, which leads him to Puerto Rico and the lair of his father's killer.

Like Reyes' first film, EMPIRE (2002), this tale of crime and punishment is wrapped in a veneer of flashy attitude but founders on mundane details. If the DeLeons have been in hiding for two decades, why are they still DeLeons? Not only is the family name on a mess of big-money real estate tractions, but it's Wilson's vanity plate. And where in wealthy Connecticut can you have a pitched gun battle on your front lawn without the police showing up within minutes? And when they finally arrive, why aren't they more curious about pistol-packing mama Millie's arsenal? Or is she putting her own name on legal gun registrations as well? If the film were as baroquely deranged as, say, SHADOWBOXER (2006) — a three-ring freak show in crime movie drag — the details wouldn't matter, but they count in a nominally realistic genre film, where street cred is all. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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