The gangster melodrama Illegal Tender, about a family on the run from a Puerto Rican kingpin, isn't terribly subtle or ambiguous, but it leaves behind a lot of questions, at least rhetorical ones. For example, how can Rick Gonzalez, the grown-up son of a slain drug dealer, drive a brand-new Bentley, reside in a palatial home, and otherwise live through 20 years of privilege without ever once questioning how his widowed, jobless mother kept them in a life of luxury? How does a family survive two midday shootouts in the middle of a wealthy suburban block without a single neighbor complaining and only cursory questioning from the police? And lastly, how untouchable and scary is a mob boss when his secret hideout can be infiltrated by someone propping open the back door with a piece of cardboard? This may sound like nitpicking, but once these little implausibilities pile up, the film loses all credibility.
Produced by John Singleton, Illegal Tender plays like Singleton's overrated coming-of-age film Boyz N The Hood reconfigured, cheaply and shoddily, for the Scarface generation. Born on the night his father was killed, Gonzalez has grown up oblivious to his family history, because his hot momma Wanda De Jesus has successfully shielded him and his young half-brother from harm. For 20 years, the head of a Puerto Rican mob syndicate has been trying to track De Jesus down and kill her for unspecified reasons; when they discover her in a Connecticut suburb, she can no longer keep the past a secret from her son. Naturally, it falls on the sullen Gonzalez to man up and end this vendetta once and for all.
As the best excuse for an Oedipal complex this side of Pam Grier, De Jesus makes a meal out of her tough-mom role, though she'd have been better served by a movie that embraced its over-the-top exploitation side more vigorously. Intended as the story of Gonzalez's bloody rite of passage into manhood, Franc. Reyes' florid melodrama spends too much time glamorizing gangsterism to be taken seriously. Its flesh-and-guns aesthetic does lead to some hilariously goofy moments, such as the waves of cross-eyed, crooked-shooting henchmen sent to kill De Jesus' family, or possibly the sexiest suicide in film history. But for a film about growing up, Illegal Tender loses itself in a lot of silly juvenilia.