He’s not bad news, Wilson, he’s the worst news there is.
—Millie (Wanda de Jesús)
At once splendid and perverse, Millie De Leon (Wanda de Jesús) is a whirl of contradictions. A good mother, gallant widow, and supremely capable businesswoman, she faces odds that any male in the movies might find daunting. And yet she persists, whether wearing efficient suburban lady slacks or sultry eveningwear, focused on her family yet also tough-minded, audacious, and, no small detail, brilliant with a 9mm.
In Illegal Tender, Millie needs all her many skills in order to look after Wilson Jr. (Rick Gonzalez) and Randy (Antonio Ortiz), mama’s boys if ever there were any. Will first appears in his ride, looking at first like he’s a standard movie gangster-boy, his rocking fine rims and massive speakers, sure to set the alarm when he parks in the lot at… Danbury College. It’s 1996, and he’s got a pretty and respectable girlfriend, Ana (Dania Ramirez), a backpack, an Xbox 360, and an emerging attitude when it comes to his mom.
If he knew about his mom what you know, Will might not be so attached to his muy macho pose. Until now, he’s been sheltered from her most difficult and traumatizing past, specifically, her particular understanding of the terrible connections between life and death for Millie, established in the film’s early moments, when it crosscuts between two scenes: the murder of Will’s drug-dealing father, Wilson Sr. (Manny Perez) and Will’s birth. Though she had pleaded with him not to go out hat night, he had, and so she’s left with her mother when the time comes, screaming during contractions and As Millie screams with the pain of her contractions, Wilson is killed by his shadowy associate Javier (Gary Perez), or ore precisely, shot in cold blood by Javier’s mighty hitwomen (Mercedes Mercado and Carmen Perez), whose big hair and bosoms are surpassed only by their bigger guns.
Millie makes the best of her many difficulties, supporting Will and Randy (whose father is never seen) in commendably fancy style. But while she insists she’s just a good investor, putting Wilson’s meager payout into Microsoft during the ‘80s, the bad guys who killed her husband believe she’s holding out on them. And so they keep coming after her, periodically tracking her down and forcing her to move the boys to another location. The early scene that shows Will with Ana is setting up for one of these moves, of course. Their comfortable life in the Connecticut suburbs looks to be on course: Will’s a good older brother, even in the midst of a quarrel with mom making sure that Randy does his homework before he plays videogames. But just as 21-year-old Will contemplates moving out (he thinks his mom is seeing too many men, none reputable), the family’s essential serenity is destroyed.
That’s when Illegal Tender turns gloriously and gigantically generic. While Will’s basic plot (innocent boy is redefined by manly violence) is plain enough, it’s Millie’s trajectory that grants the film its frankly astounding and frequently entertaining energy. After Will repeatedly bungles his earnest efforts to be the man and protect his family from Javier’s many hooligans, she appears in her suburban home’s doorway brandishing two enormous guns and begins firing, it’s one of those big fat movie moments.
Taken on its own, goofy, generic terms, Illegal Tender delivers. While Millie recalls blaxploitation’s hot mamas, Foxy Brown and Cleopatra Jones, she is also a literal mama, defending her sons with alarming élan. This focus on family makes clear—again—that in the movies, women’s investments in violent contretemps and legacies are both less abstract than men’s (who talk about “honor” or “manhood”) and more earthbound. Millie’s determined to give her sons her bank account, her home, and the chance not to live the life she’s led. She has a plan, and she means to make it work, undeterred by invitations to gain revenge or reshape the criminal underworld.
The movie built around Millie is overwrought and then some, featuring overexplanatory and overworked dialogue, sluggish pacing (do we really need to see Will get in the car, drive the car on the highway, and then get out of the car, when we know exactly where he’s going?), and not one but two climactic trips to Javier’s HQ in Puerto Rico. By the time an enemy is gunned down, spurting blood on the cherished portrait of a loved one he has looming on the wall in his office, you may think you’ve had enough. But no. You have to look at that blood splatter just a couple more times. That’s the beauty of generic excess—it is too much. And Millie—she is spectacular.