It isn't often that you see the hero's hand shaking when he holds a gun in a movie. Most of the big-screen shooters we encounter -- even the ones who supposedly have no firearms experience -- have the steady grip of a confident marksman.
But in the promising yet uneven "Illegal Tender," the frightened Wilson de Leon Jr. (Rick Gonzalez) can't keep his hand steady the first time he confronts the thugs trying to kill him. You can practically hear the clickety-clack of the metal barrel bouncing off his fingers.
It's one sign that this is a different kind of urban revenge thriller: a gritty, blemishes-and-all view that captures the fear and trauma of drug-related violence within the context of the Latino experience. Instead of a glossy Hollywood fantasy about the excitement of trading blows with the bad guys, it looks as if we're in for an exercise in nuance and complexity.
It's the tale of a Bronx woman in hiding after the killing 20 years ago of her drug-dealer husband. But just when the story seems taut and plausible, director Franc. Reyes lets his film get big and silly on us.
A mother blazes away with two guns at once. A Puerto Rican drug kingpin can't seem to find the person he wants to kill even though she hasn't changed her name. That same trembling-hand shooter suddenly becomes a cocky revenge seeker who struts right into the enemy's inner sanctum.
The result is a mix of thrilling moments and sagging melodrama.
"Illegal Tender" was produced by John Singleton ("Boyz N the Hood"), a filmmaker with a distinctive artistic viewpoint, but it was directed by Reyes, who does not show the same. It has the look and feel of a film doctored by committee to broaden its commercial appeal.
Wilson, a 21-year-old college student living in luxury, has never stopped to wonder how his single, underemployed mother can afford to support him in such upscale suburban style.
The audience knows, though. In a preamble, we learn the story of his mother, Millie (Wanda De Jesus), and her determination to leave behind her drug-infested Bronx neighborhood.
Several threads weave through "Illegal Tender." The strongest is the strained relationship between Wilson and Millie. Determined to understand what happened to his father, Wilson inadvertently exposes his family to great danger, and the bonding between mother and son is affecting.
Not so strong are the generic gunbattle action sequences, implausible storyline and weaker supporting characters.
Despite its flaws, this film has something intriguing to say about the price of the American Dream. And though it won't necessarily help you in a gunfight, sometimes a shaky hand is better than a firm grip.