Director Franc Reyes has a fascination with the underworld -- an inner city underworld filled with sex, crime, money and dugs. His directional debut, “Empire,” dealt with a man trying to escape his drug dealing life on the violent streets of South Bronx and his latest flick shares a similar theme. “I grew up around guys who were drug dealers,” claims Reyes, “And with my films, I am telling stories of my own experience.”
Set against an urban, inner-city backdrop, DeJesus (“Bloodwork”) and Gonzalez (“Roll Bounce,” “Coach Carter”) play a mother and son on the run from the mob in this gritty and violent flick which pays homage to the classic mob films of the ‘80s. Millie DeLeon (DeJesus) is the modern day heroine. Beautiful, educated and sophisticated, she has a torrid past, but is living an idyllic life raising sons Wilson Jr. (Gonzalez) and Randy (Antonio Ortiz) in a suburban neighborhood after losing her drug dealing boyfriend in a shooting 20 years earlier. Her idyllic world is soon shattered and her plans to flee the city are thwarted when her son Wilson Jr. refuses to leave with her. But as he is ill prepared for the danger that confronts him when the assassins show up, mother and son are soon forced to team up and thwart the imminent danger that faces them. With guns blazing, ‘Scarface’ style, and an old score to settle it soon becomes a family affair.
Produced by John Singleton, “Tender” has more plot holes than bullet holes and although it teeters on the brink of being another classic mob flick, it lacks the clever execution of a decent plot. The well trained assassins lack silencers and despite an enormous bank account, the furthest the heroine moves to is the suburbs, a loophole DeJesus recognizes. “It’s a bean sticking out in a plate of rice. Anonymity can be found better in cities so I think his [Reyes] justification was that you go from that to the suburbs,” says DeJesus. Crime never pays but in “Tender” it does, for Millie manages to invest the bulk of monies earned from her boyfriend’s illicit drug trade in Microsoft stocks which flourishes over the years netting her a vast income. But despite the income, she just can’t seem to escape the brunt of the mob who wants to recoup the money -- or so we are led to believe although the element of surprise introduced at the end falls seriously short of satisfaction. Reyes also pays homage to his picturesque hometown of Puerto Rico where Wilson Jr. is forced to confront the man who killed his father 20 years earlier. It’s there we meet Reggaeton superstar Tego Calderon who makes his screen debut as the right hand crony to the mob czar.
The performances are convincing and Reyes deserves some kudos for slightly steering away from stereotypical roles and giving his characters a semblance of intelligence. The self taught writer/director who cites Martin Scorsese as an icon has an interesting brand of storytelling, which usually combines parts of his experiences growing up in the tough Bronx community where the movie initially kicks off, but all of the above just isn’t enough to turn this into a blockbuster or even close to it.