Empire is a disappointment, filled with some odd, wretched casting and clearly amateur filmmaking. But the sleek talents of lead performers John Leguizamo and Peter Sarsgaard are able to keep this drugs-and-gangsters flick from being a total bomb.
The mistakes of freshman writer/director Franc.Reyes (in line with “Kaos” and “McG” for annoying directorial name alterations) are obvious from the start.
Using endless voiceover from Leguizamo’s character, Victor (a move done better in Carlito’s Way), Reyes clumsily introduces the film’s themes and characters. Also, Reyes uses dopey onscreen graphics that are insulting to the audience’s intelligence. We’re already stuck listening to Victor’s endless narration; we don’t need visual aids, thank you very much.
Reyes doesn’t really make up for this lack of acuity with the film’s hodgepodge plot, which stumbles down the prototypical path of a gangster’s fall from grace with a bit of Boiler Room thrown in for good measure.
And then there’s the miscasting of Isabella Rossellini as a Colombian drug lord with a hairdo that looks like Jackie O’s on steroids. In fact, Reyes seems to equate his bad casting with bad hairdos. The always-awful Denise Richards is annoying enough as a brain-dead sexpot, but in one scene boasts an Afro hairstyle that’s absolutely laughable.
That Empire manages to be entertaining at all, even in an utterly disposable way, is thanks to Leguizamo and Sarsgaard.
A keen blend of ruthlessness and loyalty has gotten Victor to where he is at the film’s start, one of four drug-dealing kingpins in the South Bronx. Money and friends are plentiful, as is his love for girlfriend Carmen (Delilah Cotto), but something’s missing.
Victor’s vision of the American Dream is that it’s fueled by (surprise, surprise) bigger money than what he’s pulling down. He’s introduced to the lifestyle it can by when he’s introduced to Jack Wimmer (Sarsgaard), an investment banker who impresses and persuades Victor. He’s obviously too soft-spoken to be anything but a backstabbing cretin.
After cashing in on biotechnology stocks with Jack, Victor leaves the South Bronx behind for a Soho apartment and designer clothes. But complications mount when he wants to leave the drug business behind and Jack proposes a new deal that has as high a risk as it does a payoff. It’s really only a matter of time before Victor gets snaked by Jack, but it’s still effective when it happens, thanks to a strong friendship vibe that’s just palpable enough.
While it’s easy to see what’s attractive about Jack to Victor, the flipside isn’t very well explored. In one scene, Jack proudly brandishes a gun in a macho-posturing homage to Victor’s warrior style, but that’s about it.
Not surprisingly, the film’s climax goes down in a hail of gunfire and character inconsistencies and its ending is supposed to be bittersweet, but just feels bitter. Had Reyes fleshed out the connection between Victor and Jack, clearly this film’s strongest element, Empire would be more than just a standard gangster thriller.