ILLEGAL TENDER — ** — Rick Gonzalez, Wanda De Jesus; rated R (violence, profanity, sex)

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 those 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, blemish-and-all view that captures the fear and trauma of drug-related violence within the parameters 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.

But just when this tale of a Bronx woman in hiding after the killing 20 years ago of her drug-dealer husband 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 didn't even change her name. That same trembling-handed 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" might be produced by John Singleton ("Boyz N the Hood"), a filmmaker with a distinctive artistic viewpoint, but it was directed by Reyes, who doesn't show the same in this outing. 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 a life of luxury, has never stopped to wonder how his single, underemployed mother can afford to support him and his younger brother in such upscale suburban style. The audience knows, however. 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.

There are several threads weaving through "Illegal Tender," and the strongest is the strained relationship between Wilson (played by Gonzalez with an impressive charged intensity) and Millie (a resourceful and strong-edged De Jesus). 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 gun-battle action sequences, implausible storyline and weaker supporting characters (including Dania Ramirez as Wilson's resolute girlfriend and Javier Perez as an emotive drug kingpin).

Yet despite its flaws, there's something intriguing about what this film has to say about the price of the American dream. If you dig deeply enough into wealth in this country, Millie tells her son, you'll inevitably find stains. The "tender" becomes legal. Distance bestows respectability; yesterday's robber barons are today's philanthropists.

Though it won't necessarily help you in a gunfight, sometimes a shaky hand is preferable to a firm grip.

"Illegal Tender" is rated R for violence, language and some sexuality. Running time: 108 minutes.