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'Illegal Tender' is like a bad soap opera

Stock characters populate this overcooked potboiler about revenge.

August 24, 2007|Rafer Guzmán | Newsday

In the opening moments of "Illegal Tender," a group of stylishly dressed Latino drug dealers are going about their evening's work, stopping by a Bronx bodega to beat up the elderly owner for skimming off the top. One of the hoodlums, though, doesn't feel he's getting through to the old man, so he pulls a gun. "This ain't no novella," he warns.

Oh, but that's exactly what this is, complete with clenched-jaw dialogue, buxom women, stock characters and an overcooked potboiler plot. Director Franc Reyes ("Empire") employs a bit of rock video trickery (bursts of fast motion, flashes of female flesh) in the hopes of bolstering the clumsy script, but he also wrote the thing. The result recalls an episode of "CSI: Miami" but is even less satisfying.

That bodega scene, set in the Bronx of 1985, triggers a modern-day saga involving Wilson DeLeon Jr. (Rick Gonzalez), an amiable college kid whose widowed mother, Millie (Wanda De Jesus), isn't the pampered suburbanite she appears. She has ghosts in her past that she can't outrun, as Wilson discovers when he comes home to find her speedily locking and loading several handguns in the basement.

"Mom, what is all that?" he asks, agog. Her grim answer: "It's called weight, son."

If only the movie provided more such hilarity, then at least it might qualify as camp. Instead it falls back on poorly conceived action scenes (assassins shoot wildly at a house rather than locating the people inside) and pivotal plot points that make no sense (a villainous nightclub owner keeps purring about money and revenge but misses every opportunity to obtain either).

The movie's one bright spot is Gonzalez, a refreshingly natural young actor who needs to get out of the B-movie ghetto. (He's also been in the mediocre sports drama "Coach Carter" and the cruddy horror film "Pulse.") With his unruly hair and plain features, Gonzalez is appealingly unhunky; as Wilson, he's touchingly vulnerable. In one scene, he bravely snatches up two pistols to defend his house against intruders, only to find he can't steady his quivering hands. It's a funny and very real moment, one of the few this film can muster.

"Illegal Tender." MPAA rating: R for violence, language and some sexuality. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. In general release.

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