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‘Illegal Tender’ tells a soapy tale of gangsters

A pistol-packing mom and shootouts in suburbia are some of the highlights. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

Quentin Tarantino would love “Illegal Tender”: drug deals gone wrong, sassy Latina assassins in leopard-print pants, shootouts in suburbia and a buxom, pistol-packing mom at the center of it all.

It’s helpful if you walk in with the expectation that it is a genre picture — not a parody, not camp, but a loving homage to gangster movies of the 1980s like “Scarface.”

So yes, writer-director Franc. Reyes’ film (which John Singleton produced) does go over the top, but this is certainly an improvement over his 2002 debut, “Empire,” which was riddled with drug and gang clichés. At times, it actually defies the stereotypes of Hispanics we so often see on screen, and that’s refreshing.

Rick Gonzalez, a dynamic supporting figure for years in movies including “Coach Carter” and “Old School,” steps comfortably into this first lead role as Wilson De Leon Jr., a privileged college student who has no clue about his late father’s drug-dealing past. (In an opening flashback to the Bronx in 1985, we see dad get double-crossed and gunned down at the exact moment his son is born. How’s that for soapy?)

Wilson lives comfortably in a Connecticut manse with his tough-gal mother, Millie (the formidable Wanda De Jesus), and playful younger brother, Randy (the chubby-cheeked Antonio Ortiz). He has a flashy car, a beautiful girlfriend (Dania Ramirez) and, with a brain for math, a bright future. But sharp as he is, he never bothers to ask where the money comes from.

Then one day Millie spots an old foe at the grocery store, freaks out and packs Wilson and Randy up to go into hiding. Again. And those strange, armed men who show up at the house and empty clip after clip in an effort to kill them confirm her instincts.

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But Wilson is tired of running — he wants answers to his family’s mysterious past — and gets sucked into avenging his father’s death. After mom brings him down to the basement and shows him the arsenal of weapons she’s amassed in a giant safe (the combination to which is Wilson’s birthday — how sweet!), Wilson feels compelled to fly to Puerto Rico to confront Wilson Sr.’s killer, gang lord Javier Cordero (Gary Perez), at his exclusive nightclub to end this 20-year feud for good.

Champagne will be sipped! Secrets will be revealed! Blood will be shed! You know this can’t end well.

What is a surprise, though, is the charismatic performance from Latin hip-hop star Tego Calderon, making his movie debut as Javier’s top henchman, Choco. He’s a smooth talker who wears his suits neat and his sunglasses at night. He would have fit in just fine alongside Tony Montana, too.