There are so many chances for "Illegal Tender" to get things right that it's depressing to realize that it misses all of them. Here is a movie consisting entirely of wrong turns, 108 minutes of them.
The thing opens and closes with funkadelic Latin grooves on the soundtrack and retro soul fonts in the credits, but then fails to put anything resembling exploitation - witty, self-aware, or otherwise - in between. The first handful of scenes offer up an 80s flashback, full of bad music and badder fashion, but these scenes, which balance high melodrama with nutty gangland action, never grab us; these bits play out as little more than cheap exposition.
We then jump forward to the present day, and my advice to writer/director Franc. Reyes (yes, the period is in his name; no, I don't know why; yes, that's the same guy who made the capable but ultimately unmemorable drug dealers-and-stock brokers drama "Empire") would be: drop the entire opening. "Illegal Tender" is the story of a very bright young man who's shocked to learn his mother is on the run from Puerto Rican mobsters. By providing us with the overlong prologue, we're constantly one step ahead of the kid; what this movie needs is the element of surprise, for us to experience the kid's story through his own eyes. What we get is too much time wasted as we wonder when the gangster action will pop back up.
The kid is Wilson DeLeon, Jr. (Rick Gonzalez), who loves his family but is itching to leave home. He's acing his classes at the local college, is deeply in love with his faithful girlfriend (Dania Ramirez), and grows angry at his mother, Millie (Wanda De Jesus), for her habit of suddenly demanding they pack up and move without a moment's notice.
Of course, we know that Millie has that secret past - we saw her back when - and we know that she's doing the pack-and-run because at the grocery store, she ran into the woman who killed her husband twenty-one years ago. (Did I mention the flashback gives us a gangland murder and Millie going into labor on the same night?) But Wilson Jr. doesn't know that, and he's confused and angry over mom's secrets.
The movie tells us that both Wilson Jr. and Millie are smart people. So why do they do so many stupid things? Wilson Jr., with his 4.0 GPA and his clever street smarts, apparently never bothered to ask how his mother was able to afford such nice things without ever having a job. Millie, meanwhile, apparently never realized how easy it would be for the mob to track her down when her idea of hiding is to name her son after the man they killed and to only move an hour's drive away from the scene of the crime. (Instead of hightailing it to Iowa, she moves to suburban Connecticut, keeping her own name along the way.)
It seems Reyes is less concerned with logic than he is with ideas, which would be fine if he could flesh out those ideas into something that works dramatically. He intends his story to be a study in contrast, the sheltered suburban kid suddenly thrust into the Puerto Rican underworld. ("Empire," with its Wall Street-meets-The Streets plot, reveals a recurring theme for the filmmaker.) But Reyes jumps around too much, zipping us from exaggerated action to restrained drama to overblown soap opera antics and back again, never really settling on one form, never really figuring out what kind of story he wants to tell.
Things work best, oddly enough, in over-the-top mode. De Jesus is a lot of fun to watch when she's hamming up the film's soap operatics, and several key scenes have a certain telenovela flair to them, especially in the overwrought finale. The story seems to stop taking itself so seriously, and we enjoy the silliness.
But these moments collide with its straighter elements. Gonzalez, a terrific young star, is very good here, but he's often left with almost nothing to do. His character wanders around the plot, getting thrown into the wilder scenes without ever actually connecting to them. This is not the actor's fault; Gonzalez provides his role with a much needed earnestness that helps keep things afloat. But what to make of such scenes as the one in the Puerto Rican nightclub, where Wilson Jr. and the bombastic gangsters seem to be occupying two separate movies?
As things roll on, it always looks like Reyes is about to settle on one style or another, but he never does. This leaves "Illegal Tender" as a frustrating affair, always almost good enough, never quite making it. All these wrong turns are tiresome.
Video & Audio
"Illegal Tender" looks and sounds fantastic, with a lush anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1) transfer that elegantly handles the film's rich color schemes, and a deep Dolby 5.1 soundtrack that provides a well-balanced mix. A Spanish dub, also in Dolby 5.1, is included, as are optional English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles.
Three deleted scenes (9:18 total) flesh out the story a little, but also bog it down some; it's easy to see why these were cut. Presented in 2.35:1 non-anamorphic letterbox.
"The Making of Illegal Tender" (21:26) offers a bit more depth than the usual featurette, with plenty of on-set footage making up for the more generic cast and crew interviews. While Reyes is present, it's producer John Singleton who gets most of the screen time here. In 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen, with movie clips cropped to approximately 1.85:1.
Also included is the music video for "Dame Dame" by Que No featuring Dicky Ranking and Abusive (3:55) as well as a brief making-of (3:08) covering the video's shoot. Both shown in non-anamorphic 1.77:1 letterbox.
A collection of trailers for other Universal titles plays as the disc loads.
"Illegal Tender" works in tiny chunks, but it's too disjointed to ever click as a whole. Fans of modern gangster melodramas and urban thrillers will do fine to Rent It, keeping a heavy thumb on the fast-forward button.