Mother knows best — and shoots straight — in “Illegal Tender,” a Latin-flavored crime meller propelled by a throbbing soundtrack that fuses hip-hop, salsa and Reggaeton to muy bueno effect. The second feature written and directed by former dancer-choreographer Franc. Reyes (“Empire”), pic plays like a mash-up of pulp fiction and telenovela while focusing on vengeful drug kingpins, pistol-packing Latinas, cross-generational conflict and ferocious maternal instincts. Homevid payoff could be potent after theatrical foreplay.
Reyes provides exposition and motivation in a briskly efficient prologue that concludes with the killing of a midlevel Bronx drug dealer (Manny Perez) on the very night his wife (Jessica Pimentel) gives birth to their son.
Flash-forward 21 years: The wife, Millie, now older and colder and played by Wanda De Jesus (“Blood Work”), enjoys a comfortable suburban lifestyle financed by her wise management (and careful laundering) of her late husband’s ill-gotten gain. (She’s especially proud of her early decision to buy Microsoft stock.) Trouble is, every few years, she has to uproot her now two sons and move to another zip code, lest she risk extermination by minions of the same drug lord who ordered her spouse’s extermination.
Wilson (Rick Gonzalez), Millie’s oldest son, is a straight-A college student who’s going through what might be termed a difficult phase. He’s sullenly disapproving of his mother’s sporadic romantic flings — one of which resulted in the birth of Randy (Antonio Ortiz), his precocious younger brother — and he’s angered by her latest decision to change addresses. (He’d much rather stay put and continue his romance with a comely coed played by Dania Ramirez.)
And so, after years of keeping her son clueless about his father, Millie takes the rebellious young man down to the basement of their spacious Connecticut home and brings him up to speed. She also opens the safe where she stocks her firepower, and gives the incredulous Wilson his first gun.
To his credit, Reyes refuses to fast-forward Wilson’s evolution from callow youth to lethal avenger. Indeed, on those few occasions when he does hold a weapon — and, rarer still, successfully uses it — the young man appears distinctly uncomfortable, if not downright trembly. In stark contrast, his mother shoots and scores with intense precision whenever would-be assassins dare to drop by.
Gonzalez walks a fine line, playing a character who most certainly isn’t a coward, but isn’t Mr. Macho either. He often seems likes a younger, brasher version of John Leguizamo (who, perhaps not coincidentally, played the lead in Reyes’ “Empire”). But he’s repeatedly overshadowed by De Jesus, who credibly conveys her character’s emotional range — and, just as important, looks pretty badass handling a gun.
If Reyes had pushed his material in another direction, “Illegal Tender” could have come off as a very dark comedy, a Tarantinoesque romp (note the abundance of shapely hitwomen) and/or a perversely edgy thriller with an Oedipal steak. Instead, helmer takes a surprisingly straightforward approach, avoiding ostentatious stylistic flourishes and never allowing anything, not even the gunplay, to get out hand.
As a result, however, pic is too muted to have much lasting impact, and remains modestly diverting only on a scene-to-scene basis. There’s no quotable dialogue, no standout action sequence, no flashy supporting performances — in short, nothing to lift “Illegal Tender” from the level of competent but inconsequential B-movie.
Still, there is that sizzling soundtrack. And De Jesus’ authoritative performance, laced with a subtle hint of mature sensuality, might be enough for pic to have unexpectedly strong femme appeal.