Illegal Tender

Javier Pesquera / Universal Studios

Review in a Hurry:  This shameless attempt to cash in on Latino audiences markets itself as the Puerto Rican Scarface. Turns out, though, Illegal Tender is a laughable low-budget mess about third-rate drug thugs, put together with the sheen and polish of a fourth-grade Christmas pageant. Except with really loud reggaeton.

The Bigger Picture:  In the opening sequence, a leather-clad drug dealer warns one of his subordinates that "this ain't no telenovela." Wow, is he right. With its skeletal script, meandering plot and dull characters, Illegal Tender wishes it could reach the artistic heights of Spanish-language daytime television. Instead, it's a half-baked mob tale devoid of creativity and fun.

After her drug-dealing husband is double-crossed and murdered, Millie (Wanda De Jesus), a hard-as-nails buxom Bronx resident, moves herself and newborn son Wilson to Connecticut. Twenty years later, Wilson (Rick Gonzales) is attending a private liberal arts college, wearing sweater vests, making out with the only Puerto Rican girl in suburban Connecticut and is totally oblivious to his family's sordid past.

But uh-oh! Several of Millie's dead husband's murderous foes have also jumped onto the Connecticut real estate scene—and not just for good schools. They're out to kill Millie, see, and she's forced to explain to Wilson why she fled New York and why she wants to flee again.

Well, Wilson simply won't stand for it and trains himself to use a gun, sideways. He and his mom zip back and forth from New England to Puerto Rico in order to settle the score, shop and work on their accents.

This may sound pretty bad, but please understand that the actual execution is far worse. Every scene feels like a first take, as if director Franc. Reyes decided, What the heck, that's good enough. The camera work is choppy, the dialogue is rushed, the actors stumble over each other's lines and insert bizarre drawn-out pauses between overacted monologues.

The film's only glimmer of redemption comes from the buoyant Gonzales, who tries in earnest to give Wilson some nuance and texture. He and De Jesus both reach for some kind of emotional power, but are constantly undermined by a ridiculous script. So, the only emotion they're able to illicit from the audience is embarrassment from watching a film flounder.

The 180—a Second Opinion:  If you've always wished that rap-music videos were 20 times longer, with a tad more dialogue and character development, well, you're in for a treat with Illegal Tender.

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