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Movie Review

'Illegal Tender' deals in funk, hits, and drugs

Rick Gonzalez (with Dania Ramirez) stars as the son of an assassinated drug dealer in 'Illegal Tender.' Rick Gonzalez (with Dania Ramirez) stars as the son of an assassinated drug dealer in "Illegal Tender." (javier pesquera/universal)

In "Illegal Tender," a boy's best small arms supplier is his mother. She's got your back in a shoot-out, too.

The movie's a genuine oddity: a Latino action drama with one foot in bullet-spitting genre flicks -- '70s blaxploitation and '80s coke-kingpin films are the primary reference points -- and the other in raggedly personal family melodrama. Produced by John Singleton, it's the handcrafted work of writer/director Franc. Reyes, whose previous movie "Empire" (2002) gave Isabella Rossellini a lulu of a role as a Colombian drug dealer.

The female roles in Reyes's movies start small and eventually go operatic. In "Illegal Tender," it's Wanda De Jesus' turn to play the hard-boiled diva as Millie DeLeon, a wealthy suburban widow with a skeleton or two in her closet. Her rebellious college-age son, Wilson (Rick Gonzalez), doesn't understand why he and his little half-brother (Antonio Ortiz) have to move every few years, and now that Wilson has a girlfriend, Ana (Dania Ramirez), he's even more inclined to stick around.

Why, mama, why? Since we already saw Wilson's drug-dealer dad (Manny Perez) get gunned down by mob boss Javier (Gary Perez) in a 1985 prologue, we have an inkling, but "Illegal Tender" has a few surprises up its sleeve. The ones you expect least are generally the most entertaining, like all those businesslike hit-ladies in hot pants. Or the importance of buying Microsoft stock in the mid-'80s.

Normally this sort of low-end revenge thriller plays out with drab predictability. "Tender" keeps disarming you with funk, though. The dialogue is fumbling but at least it's not boilerplate. Ganglingly intense lead actor Gonzalez is no one's idea of a movie star, and that's why we keep watching him. When Wilson finds himself holding off Javier's assassins at gunpoint, his hands believably shake. (Girlfriend, meanwhile, is freaking out under the basement stairs with a kitchen knife.)

For her part, De Jesus gains in stature until by the final scenes she's a snarling wonder to behold: a double-pistol-packin' mama who accompanies her boy to Puerto Rico for a climactic confrontation with Javier. A few more surprises: One of the villain's bodyguards is played by the eccentrically charming reggaeton star Tego Calderon, and Javier turns out to be something of a softie, although a lethal one.

"Illegal Tender" turns out to be a modest surprise, too -- a solid meat-and-potatoes B-movie with enough personality to spin it in unexpected directions. That personality is Reyes's, and whether he goes north or south from here, he's some kind of filmmaker to watch.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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Illegal Tender

Written and directed by: Franc. Reyes

Starring: Rick Gonzalez, Wanda De Jesus, Dania Ramirez, Gary Perez, Tego Calderon

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 108 minutes

Rated: R (violence, language, and some sexuality)

In English and Spanish, with subtitles

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