What with my vague recollection of director Franc Reyes’ 2002 debut Empire resembling an all-Latino version of Goodfellas, the opening minutes of Illegal Tender, depicting a life of crime that prominently features actual bags of cash and sex with improbably attractive women on canopied beds, made me think that this time around I was in for an all-Latino rendering of Scarface. But when, after two highly boobalicious assassins stage a bloody execution, the film abruptly cuts from the Bronx in 1985 to Danbury College, Connecticut, 2006, I thought I might have to reevaluate that assessment. Indeed, what Reyes has in mind here is both more interesting and, ultimately, more troubling than a simple retread would have been. Illegal Tender isn’t a very good film, but it shows a genre filmmaker who is full of ideas and unwilling to settle. I understand that most ordinary moviegoers aren’t interested in paying to see a director’s promise, but there you have it.
In a film that presumes to be about drugs, guns, money, and Puerto Rican gangs, Reyes dares to make his protagonist a math whiz. That makes more sense when you consider that Wilson DeLeon (Rick Gonzalez) isn’t trying to rise to the top of the criminal underworld, but rather trying to get it to leave him and his the hell alone. There’s no drug deal going down at Danbury College — Wilson actually goes there, as does his girlfriend, and when his mother (Wanda De Jesus) inexplicably flips out and decides to uproot the family for the umpteenth time, Wilson puts his foot down and decides that he’s staying. Mom responds by giving him a loaded gun and skedaddling, which seems bizarre to Wilson until his house is invaded by a couple of unsavory characters determined to shoot anything that moves.
What follows is Wilson’s extended attempt to extricate his family from this murderous mess — a task that involves multiple beatings, shoot-outs, and secret trips to Puerto Rico. Before long, the film takes on a distinctly soapy vibe, with lots of overwritten heart-to-hearts, meaningful pauses, and references to “Tony Montana shit that doesn’t exist.” One possible response is to snort in derision, but I got the sense that Reyes knew what he was doing: at points he is clearly having fun, as when college boy goes out for target practice — complete with the gangsta sideways gun pose — wearing a polo shirt and pastel sweater. It’s a fascinating genre experiment, a combination of hard-bitten gangland drama and dewy-eyed hero’s journey. And damned if it doesn’t almost work, too.
The reason it doesn’t get there is that Reyes the screenwriter either tries too hard, leaving scenes that should have been heartfelt and organic feeling desperately contrived, or not hard enough, providing explanations that don’t make any literal or emotional sense. Wilson’s frenzied attempts to sit his mother down and extract information from her provide a good example of both: their conversations are weirdly unproductive, with mom speaking in some sort of bizarre code, seemingly allowed to betray a single piece of useful information at a time. Reyes may have found this convenient for his plotting (though given the out-of-the-blue last act revelation, it’s hard to see why), but it makes their relationship seem stilted, strained, made up. At one point, mom tells the frustrated Wilson: “You know what I’m about. If you have something to say to me, then say it.” I wished they both would. Given the importance of the mother-son dynamic to the film, this is a huge liability.
The ending, too, seemed pulled out of the air, existing solely to set up a touching moment between Wilson and his mom in the last scene. On one hand, this is heartening, and kind of the reverse of the above problem: Reyes manipulates the mechanics of the plot to serve the relationship at the heart of the movie. But when that manipulation is the key to every significant event in the story, it had better stand on its own two feet. One of the last lines in Illegal Tender is: “It’s all about the money with those kinds of people.” As befits the Reyes’ anti-moralist bent (Wilson is rebuked for insisting that his father was just a “drug dealer” and thus a “loser”), it’s a lie — but the film would have been stronger if it were true.
The movie’s anchor, it turns out, is Wanda De Jesus, in a remarkable, live-wire performance as Millie DeLeon. One of Reyes’ centerpieces is a protracted shoot-out at the family residence, and the mere sight of Millie emerging from the front door, guns in both hands blazing (“You want me, motherfuckers? Come and get me!”) makes it all worthwhile. Illegal Tender exists for those fleeting moments of genre genius, as well as Reyes’ willingness to experiment. I’m glad I saw it.