by Del Harvey
Aspires to greatness…and fails only for lack of imagination.
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The story: A young Hispanic man who has elevated himself to the level of distributor in the Bronx, a rather unsavory section of New York City, has dreams of getting out. He is Victor, who narrates the story with passion and soul. His girlfriend, Carmen, is pregnant, and bumps into a smart young woman named Trish, who is as far from the other side of the tracks as possible. Trish and Carmen hit it off, and soon arrange a date for themselves and their boyfriends. Trish’s boyfriend is Jack, a rising star amongst the Wall Street crowd, and who sees a correlation between his world and Victor’s. It is a vision which Victor shares. Then, the leap is made: Jack will handle a large investment for Victor, who hopes this will provide him with the wealth he needs to leave this dark world behind and create a good life for himself and his family.
Only, things are never as they seem. Jack provides Victor and Carmen the use of a sumptuous loft, further inspiring Victor’s dreams. Of course, there’s a dark side to Jack, and that’s when Victor’s world crumbles around him. His boss, called La Colombiana, is an older woman who knows her business. She tried to tell Victor, but he would not listen. Now look at the mess he’s in.
Empire’s premise is pretty standard fare, possibly borrowed from Shakespeare by way of Steven Bochco. The key pieces to the story are all there, and for much of the film the audience is given the impression that they are seeing something much more than just another gangster opus. However, the brainless squad of studio execs must have told themselves the script needed a little twist—some kind of shocker, a real surprise. Except we all see this coming. It’s telegraphed at least twenty miles away. And we are all left feeling like we’re holding the bag right along with Victor.
The acting is very good. In fact, that is what drew me to this film. I like John Leguizamo (Victor), and have been waiting for him to get something which will show off his talent. For a while, this film does do that. Then it throws the poor guy a sucker punch. His costar, the very beautiful, ringlet-haired Delilah Cotto (Carmen), also gives good performance. But to no avail. Quite effective as the efficient confidence man, Peter Sarsgarrd (Jack) plays dark humanity very well. Reprising the muliplicitious character we’ve seen in films like Wild Things, Denise Richards (Trish) is as lovely, and deadly, as ever. In a surprising turn, the captivating Isabella Rosellini plays Victor’s boss, La Colombiana, a shrewd, resolute woman of fierce principles.
Dotting the near landscape are a handful of first-class character actors and rappers, who not only lend the proper flavor and authenticity of the seamy Bronx life, but help secure an image of Leguizamo as a power drug distributor. These include Treach as Chedda, Vincent Laresca as Jimmy, Fat Joe as Tito, and Rafael Baez as Jay. Also providing rock solid support are Sonia Braga as Iris, and Ruben Blades in an unnamed character role.
Empire was written and directed by Franc Reyes, in his debut. I have very mixed feelings about the story, and do not know where the idea for the weak-minded twist ending came from, and so will not say anything further about that. He does a good job of directing the film, which is worth noting.
If you’re a fan of Leguizamo’s, Empire is definitely worth seeing for some very fine acting on his part. If you’re looking for a solid action film, there is plenty of action here, as well as a lot of bloodshed and some truly gory violence. If you’re looking for the film alluded to in the trailers, you will not find it here. And that is the worst con of all.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He is a devout Bears fan, a lover of Grant Park in any season, and recently taught screenwriting at Columbia College Chicago.
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