Empire (2002) - News Poster

(2002)

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Illegal Tender

Illegal Tender
A considerable improvement over his messy 2002 gangster drama, Empire, Franc. Reyes' Illegal Tender is quite an entertaining genre piece boasting a terrifically sinewy lead performance from Wanda De Jesus.

It may be another mob-related movie, but this one is better focused, storytelling-wise, with a more plausible plot twist and far fewer caricatures than last time out.

Although writer-director Reyes still has a weakness for melodrama, De Jesus, playing a fiercely protective mother raising her two sons in an affluent New England neighborhood when her late husband's drug-dealing past catches up with them, holds those impulses in check through sheer conviction.

The result is a late-summer crowd rouser that could generate a respectable chunk of legal tender from its young, Hispanic-targeted demographic.

After a brief, situation-setting flashback, the action moves 21 years ahead to an upscale Connecticut suburb where De Jesus' Millie DeLeon lives with her two sons: college-age Wilson (Rick Gonzalez) and his much younger half-brother, Randy (Antonio Ortiz).

Wilson's still at that age where his single mom can do no right, especially where her choice in boyfriends in concerned, but he's also getting tired of her abruptly pulling up stakes with little warning and heading for a fresh start in a brand new city.

Millie is set to bolt again after a chance grocery store run-in with a woman from her past, only this time Wilson wants an explanation before he agrees to flee.

Millie tells him what we already know from the prelude -- that his father, Wilson Sr. (Manny Perez), was a New York drug dealer who was gunned down by his double-crossing associates.

Whatever bad blood there was between Wilson Sr. and the mob has extended to his widow, who has been outrunning and/or outgunning would-be assassins ever since.

This time, however, Millie doesn't have to go it alone, as Wilson Jr. takes up the cause, going mano a mano with the kingpin ordering the hit, the powerful Puerto Rican nightclub owner Choco (Tego Calderon).

By keeping the mother-son loyalty element at the forefront, Reyes is able to pile on all the obligatory gangster bling while holding audience involvement right until the final (gun)shot.

He's also done a good job of flipping around -- or at least toning down -- some of the stereotypes that weighed down Empire.

But at the end of the day, what makes Illegal Tender a particularly lively ride is De Jesus, who, knowing she's been handed one of those flashy roles that only comes around once so often, grabs it by the horns and charges out with guns blazing. She never loses sight of those maternal underpinnings that lend her character a refreshingly fuller dimension.

Following her lead, Gonzalez (Coach Carter) brings a youthful righteousness to the part of the headstrong son. Musician Calderon effectively underplays the resident heavy.

Production values for the John Singleton-produced film, shot in New York and Puerto Rico, are all on the money, though Heitor Pereira demonstrates an itchy trigger finger in a score that greets every tense moment with an unnecessary amount of sound and fury.

ILLEGAL TENDER

Universal

Universal Pictures and New Deal Entertainment present a John Singleton production

Credits:

Director-screenwriter: Franc. Reyes

Producer: John Singleton

Executive producers: Dwight Williams, Preston L. Holmes

Director of photography: Frank Byers

Production designer: Keith Brian Burns

Music: Heitor Pereira

Costume designer: Rahimah Yoba

Editor: Tony Ciccone

Cast:

Wilson DeLeon Jr.: Rick Gonzalez

Millie DeLeon: Wanda De Jesus

Ana: Dania Ramirez

Wilson DeLeon Sr.: Manny Perez

Randy: Antonio Ortiz

Young Millie: Jessica Pimentel

Choco: Tego Calderon

Running time -- 108 minutes

MPAA rating: R

Keitel flashing NYPD badge for 'Ministers'

Keitel flashing NYPD badge for 'Ministers'
Harvey Keitel is in final negotiations to join the cast of The Ministers, a crime thriller being directed by filmmaker Franc. Reyes.

Written by Reyes, the story follows a female NYPD detective whose father was murdered years ago by a group known as the Ministers. She learns that the group has begun to kill again, and in her attempt to avenge her father, she unknowingly becomes romantically involved with a member of the group.

Newcomer Florencia Lozano is the detective. John Leguizamo, who starred in Reyes' 2002 hit actioner Empire, and Diane Venora also are in the cast.

Keitel would play a good cop who has an unfortunate incident that changes the course of his life.

Reyes is producing along with Jill Footlick, who produces via her Grow Pictures.

Aaron Ray of the Collective, and Glenn Stewart, Steffan Aumuller and Claus Clausen of Sherzade are exec producing.

The Collective structured the financing for the sub-$10 million film and will handle all domestic sales.

Reyes 'Set-Up' for RKO remake

Reyes 'Set-Up' for RKO remake
Franc Reyes, who helmed Empire, the highest-grossing film to come out of the Sundance Film Festival in 2002, has signed on to rewrite and direct a remake of RKO's boxing drama The Set-Up. Robert Wise directed the 1949 original with a cast that included Robert Ryan as over-the-hill boxer Stoker Thompson along with Audrey Totter and George Tobias. The story revolves around Thompson's battle to get back into the ring and winning form despite complaints from his wife, played by Totter. The redo has been in the works for some time, with a series of writers -- from Sidney Lumet and Tony Lee to Mardik Martin -- turning in drafts during the past several years. In fall 2002, Lumet also was set to direct James Gandolfini, Halle Berry and Benjamin Bratt in the pic, but that package fell apart.

'Analyze' shrinks in face of Bond

'Analyze' shrinks in face of Bond
Analyze That, the new mob comedy from Warner Bros. Pictures and the weekend's only new wide release, didn't exactly end up swimming with the fishes, but it lacked the muscle to take over the boxoffice territory as it was brushed aside by that old smoothie James Bond in MGM's Die Another Day. In the week-to-week seesaw battle for the top spot between Die and Warner Bros. Pictures' Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets -- each film has now held the No. 1 position twice in the past four weekends -- agent 007 moved back into first place with an estimated $13 million in its third session. Analyze That opened to a discouraging $11.3 million. Chamber of Secrets moved into the third spot for the first time as the fantasy-adventure film conjured up an estimated $10 million. Universal's Empire, from Arenas Entertainment, had a strong debut in the fourth slot with an estimated $6.3 million from 867 theaters. Last weekend, Buena Vista's Treasure Planet with $12.1 million was the top grosser of the mostly dismal spate of five new wide releases. This weekend, Planet was in orbit around the fifth slot on its sophomore outing as it picked up an estimated $5.7 million.

Universal loves romance pitch from Leguizamo

Universal loves romance pitch from Leguizamo
Universal Pictures has picked up an untitled romantic comedy pitch from John Leguizamo, who will co-write the screenplay as a starring vehicle for himself and will produce and possibly direct through his Rebel Films. GreeneStreet Films, which houses Rebel, also is producing the project, the story of a young Latino man as he decides whether to take the plunge and marry the love of his life. Leguizamo will write the script with his producing party Kathy DeMarco, who also is producing with Leguizamo and GreeneStreet. The studio's production president, Mary Parent, and senior vp production Donna Langley are overseeing the project. Leguizamo and De Marco were repped in the deal by WMA, 3 Arts Entertainment and attorney Jason Sloane. Leguizamo next stars in Newmarket Films' Spun and Arenas Entertainment's Empire, which he co-produced. He won an Emmy Award for outstanding performance in a variety or music program for his HBO special Freak, which he wrote, produced and starred in.

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