If it had a smaller budget and its theatrical prints were marred with scratches and debris, Illegal Tender might pass for the first half of a skuzzy, exploitative drive-in double feature. As it currently stands, however, Franc. Reyes' follow-up to Empire will have to make do delivering silly, shallow B-movie nonsense to fancy-schmancy multiplexes. A Hispanic crime saga unable to fully compensate for its amateurish performances, awkward dialogue, and hypocrisy regarding a criminal lifestyle that's supposedly condemned even as it's lustily glorified, Reyes' film is far more sizzle than substance. Nightclub grinding, champagne sipping, and guns cocking - these are a few of the director's favorite things, all of which receive the lion's share of attention throughout his tale of a family trying to fight back against a gangster who won't let them live in peace. Still, nothing in this goofy pic receives more TLC than star Wanda De Jesus, a brawny yet sexy badass Latina mama cast from a shoot-now, ask-questions-never Foxy Brown mold. Listen closely enough while she's commanding the screen, and you can almost hear Blaxploitation-loving Quentin Tarantino panting.
Decked out in tight shirts that reveal an equal amount of cleavage and bicep muscle, De Jesus plays Millie DeLeon, a Connecticut mother of 21-year-old collegian Wilson Jr. (Rick Gonzalez) and young Randy (Antonio Ortiz) whose drug dealer husband - as shown in a lengthy prologue set in 1986 Brooklyn - died at the hands of his duplicitous cohorts on the night Wilson Jr. was born. And by cohorts, I mean two voluptuous hitwomen in low-cut tops, mini skirts, and high heels -- a laughable pair who don't look remotely comfortable wielding firearms yet nonetheless work at the behest of kingpin Javier Cordero (Gary Perez). That Illegal Tender thinks it extremely clever to cross-cut between Wilson Sr.'s (Manny Perez) murder and Wilson Jr.'s birth - One life exits, another life enters! Whoa! - is emblematic of the film, which can't go five minutes without having a character articulate some obvious fact or simplistic theme. Grace is not the film's strong suit.