Funny Money: Jag Mundhra’s Legal Tender (1991)

Matty gets to grips with the erotic thriller maestro’s other Tanya Roberts flick.

On screen, for the first chunk of the ‘90s, just before the genre-defining likes of Shannons Whirry and Tweed hit their stride, Tanya Roberts was the empress of the erotic thriller’s straight-to-video strain.

Behind the scenes, however, the former Charlie’s Angel was, in no uncertain terms, a complete and utter nightmare. 

From giving Fred Olen Ray the runaround on the set of his monumentally successful crotch opera Inner Sanctum (1991), to repeatedly locking horns with Jim Wynorski during the shooting of Sins of Desire (1993), Roberts quickly earned a reputation among the B-movie community for being difficult to deal with. Tellingly, few directors worked with her more than once — though there were exceptions. Rob Spera, Ellen Sycamore, and Romy Hayes put in multi-episode stints with the capricious siren on Cinemax’s sexy anthology show Hot Line, and, feature-wise, Jag Mundhra forged enough of a bond with Roberts while making the trendsetting Night Eyes (1990) to warrant teaming with her again on a vanity project, LEGAL TENDER (aka ‘Ladies Game’), just under a year later.   

As with Night Eyes, Legal Tender was produced by Ashok Amritraj — but the film is closer to Amritraj and Mundhra’s earlier epics, The Jigsaw Murders (1989) and Eyewitness to Murder (1989), in that it’s more of a conventional thriller with racy elements rather than a full-blown shag-stravaganza. Indeed, it’s fairly light as far as derma goes. There’s a smattering of bare boobage, but Legal Tender’s centrepiece — a typically well done scuttling between Roberts and her grizzled co-star, Robert Davi — is marred by the fact that the actual gyrating is performed by two very obvious body doubles. 

Written by Roberts’ then husband, Barry Roberts, the crux of Legal Tender’s tangled story sees tyrannical Tanya’s landlady-cum-card shark attempting to stop her family’s bar being used as a front for drug deals. The funk-tinged score by William Kidd works overtime trying to give Mr. Roberts’ rubbish dialogue and unfocussed plotting emotional and dramatic substance, but it’s truly throwaway stuff. That said, in Mundhra’s enthusiastic hands, the whole shoddily structured enterprise is confidently tackled. Lensed by the helmer’s Night Eyes and Last Call (1991) collaborator James Mathers, Legal Tender is visually strong and playful in execution, and Mundhra finds a consistently entertaining yet surprisingly delicate balance between the script’s hackneyed grit n’ gristle and its tackier, sillier moments which he rightly presents as high camp. Whether anyone else is in on the joke, I’m not entirely sure. There’s a real sense that the Roberts’ believe they’ve created an edgy, character-driven piece of human interest. Thankfully, such pomposity is curtailed by the glorious mugging of Morton Downey Jr. Cast as the film’s villain — a cowboy-fixated businessman/coke baron — the trash TV pioneer has a ball, partaking in an office spanking session with his secretary (Mundhra stock player Wendy McDonald), and lolling around his character’s pool in a black budgie smuggler, flanked by two topless babes (one of whom is tragic porno queen Savannah). Downey Jr. would subsequently invoke a similar level of pantomime in Adam Simon’s Body Chemistry 2: Voice of a Stranger (1991)

The rest of Legal Tender’s ensemble are lumped squarely in ‘meh’ territory. Davi does Steve McQueen-esque cool with his private dick shtick, replete with pictures of James Dean and Humphrey Bogart frequently framed behind him to hammer home the classic Hollywood antihero allusions. Waxwork’s (1988) Charles McCaughan pulls from The Big Book of Cliched Junkies as Roberts’ smack-addled brother; Mundhra go-to Cole S. McKay passes muster with his usual henchman shenanigans; and Roberts herself aims for ‘tough cookie with a heart of gold’. She is, alas, awful. Ever the stylist, Mundhra, at least, ensures she looks nice.

Partially financed by Shapiro Glickenhaus Entertainment and shot two months after the Last Call, Mundhra and Amritraj showcased Legal Tender at the American Film Market in March 1991 before their Night Eyes and Last Call co-producers Prism Entertainment issued it on U.S. cassette six months later.

USA ● 1991 ● Erotic Thriller ● 93mins

Tanya Roberts, Robert Davi, Morton Downey Jr. ● Dir. Jag Mundhra Wri. Barry Roberts

U.S. VHS art courtesy of VHS Collector

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