I like this movie. It is not terribly well acted, told, or executed, but there was still something about it — there is an energy that I found infectious, and the portrayals of the lead characters lend more depth than you would expect. This is more than a story of drug dealings gone bad, or bad guys seeking to regain what is theirs — it is the story of a mother doing whatever it takes to keep her children safe. There are some maddening narrative issues, but I found it easy enough to get past them. Overall, it is a supremely watchable tale of the sins of the father returning to haunt his family.
In 1985, Wilson DeLeon was a drug dealer who did bad things, but still maintained a moral compass. His young wife was pregnant and he was looking to get out of the business. However, on the evening that everything was meant to come to a close, Wilson's partner, Javier, turned on him. Wilson is murdered, leaving a wife and newborn son behind.
The story jumps ahead 21 years to 2006. Millie (Wanda DeJesus), Wilson's widow, is living in an upscale Connecticut mansion with Wilson Jr. (Rick Gonzalez) and Randy, a younger son from another relationship. Wilson is a smart guy, he is going to college, has faith, love for his family, and looks forward to a bright future. Mom, on the other hand, is walled off, always defensive and wary of her surroundings. She knows that danger lurks around every corner. You see, Wilson Sr. had appropriated some money from his drug dealings, which Millie had taken and laundered through smartly placed investments. It is this money which allows for their current standard of living.
One day, Millie and Randy are at the grocery store when Millie sees a familiar face. It is a face which brings back the threat that she has lived with for over twenty years. Survival instincts kick in, and she immediately leaps into action. She heads home and starts packing. With the arrival of that out of place face, it is time to leave. A new conflict arises when Wilson refuses to leave without being told what the problem is.
The story that comes out is a pretty simple one. Daddy is mixed up in some bad things and is killed. Mommy takes their son and goes on the run with the grifted money. Years later, the gangstas show up with intentions of finishing the job started so long ago. Mommy reveals the dark past to the son, and the son sets out on a mission to end this once and for all. That is about it. The rest of what makes this worth watching is going to be tied to the performances and the style.
The heart of this movie is carried equally by Wanda DeJesus and Rick Gonzalez. Neither performance is really believable, but both actors take hold of the script and take it to a place that is over the top and hyper-real. Wanda DeJesus gives a performance that is reminiscent of the kind of role Pam Grier played in the 1970s. She is a a proponent of tough love, and will not hesitate to wield a gun in the name of love. She has a downright electric screen presence; you will not be able to look away once she leaps into action. Then there is Rick Gonzalez, who I remember as having a recurring role on Boston Public. He is another excellent character here, a young man who has to grow up fast. Wilson has never had to want for anything, now he has to step up and do right by his family.
It was really Gonzalez's Wilson that drew me in. He was a character to like, someone who did not slip into the gangsta clichés. Sure, he was driving around in a car with some customization to it, music pumping, and sure, he has the long hair and the casual cool around him, but he is a smart young man with his head on in the right direction.
He is portrayed as someone with strong feelings about family and education. He is going to college, he helps his younger brother with his homework, and his faith is displayed quietly in a scene where he says grace before eating. I cannot recall the last time I saw something quite like that. Rick Gonzalez nailed the character. From those moments of prayer and helpfulness, we are never allowed to forget that he is also a scared young man — just take a look at how he handles himself during that first shootout in his home.
If there is one thing about Illegal Tender that annoyed me to no end, it was the maddening fashion in which plot details were laid out. Every so often Wilson would demand to know what's going on and Millie would begin to lay it out only to give just a nibble. Sure, I had an idea of what was going on, but Wilson was never given much. This sequence repeats so often that I did get a little annoyed by this slow exposition. I can understand Mom not wanting to say to much as a way of protecting her children, but it does not help the movie that much in the long run.
Director Franc Reyes brings a flashy style to the proceedings. He takes the straight ahead story and makes it fun visually, making the most of his New York and Puerto Rico locations. He also wrote the screenplay, which I still feel is a bit on the thin side. The writing is saved by DeJesus and Gonzalez. Still, Reyes shows considerable talent and it will be interesting to see what he does next.
Bottom line. B-level crime drama delivers the thrills and plenty to like. A gangsta film that does not succumb to the usual character types for the heroes. A pleasant surprise on the big screen. Not a movie that is going to tear up the box office, but will likely do well when it hits the DVD market. Much credit to the performances of the two leads.