"Empire" takes a worn-out premise about drug dealers and gangsters in the present-day South Bronx, and then, occasionally, adds enough style and energized writing to fool the viewer into believing they haven't seen it all before. For a while it works, in no small part due to first-time director Franc. Reyes' clear understanding of how to set up scenes and build momentum. Then, at the drop of a hat, it stumbles miserably in a misguided finale that exposes all that has come before as having little purpose, and few insights.
John Leguizamo (1999's "Summer of Sam
"), who often doesn't get enough credit for the focused performances he pulls off, stars as Victor Rosa, a long-time Latino heroin dealer who decides he wants to break free from the dangerous business after his college-aged girlfriend, Carmen (Delilah Cotto), tells him she is pregnant. Getting out of the professionwhich claimed his older brother's life years beforeproves more difficult than expected, as he gets in way over his head with his powerful drug lord (Isabella Rossellini) and many of his friends and rivals. In an attempt to find a new source for making money, Victor is pulled into a sort of partnership with stockbroker Jack (Peter Sarsgaard), whom he meets through Carmen's friend and Jack's girlfriend, Trish (Denise Richards). The line between who he can trust and who is dirty, however, becomes more blurred than he ever bargained for.
"Empire" is sure to never be awarded for inventing the wheel, but it does have the power to hold one's attention for longer than expected. Using narration by Victor proves an intermittent cliche, but it pulls you in by plainly telling you what is going through Victor's mind. Whether realistic or not, his discussions about how the drug dealing business works in the South Bronx is fascinating to watch. The gritty, creative cinematography by Kramer Morgenthau splashes neon colors in the most unexpected places, and uses fish-eye lenses for the establishing shots of the neighborhood to interesting effect.
Indeed, the ensemble are all types rather than full-blooded creations, but the central relationship between Victor and Carmen is one that is well-writtenfrom a screenplay by Reyesand worth rooting for. Victor is not a purely bad man, but one who has become bad through the actions he has chosen to take throughout his life. Despite not always doing the most savory of things, he recognizes the danger he has placed himself in, and captures sympathy through his road to do the right thing and go straight. Likewise, Carmen is not simply window-dressing as the love interest, but a smart young woman with her own views and ideas about what is happening around her. In a role that recalls his work in Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam
," Leguizamo has what it takes to be an investing lead, while newcomer Delilah Cotto brings warmth and keen intuitiveness to Carmen.
The rest of the actors are a mixed bag, although not for a lack of contrast in background and personalities. This is sure to be the only motion picture to ever see rappers Fat Joe and Treach, and much-lauded actress Isabella Rossellini (2002's "Roger Dodger
"), in the same cast list together. As a rival drug dealer, Fat Joe's inexperience in acting shines through with his every amateurish line delivery. Denise Richards (2002's "Undercover Brother
") gives a typically passable turn in a typical part for herthat of a sultry vixen. More distinguished is the work by Peter Sarsgaard (2002's "K-19: The Widowmaker
"), eerily resembling Ewan McGregor as the questionably shady Jack. Sarsgaard's unlikely mixture of power and wimpiness in characterizing Jack is memorable.
A key to the lack of a point in "Empire" can be found in its extreme violence and disdain for human life. By the end, nearly every major character has been brutally murdered, and the purpose behind it all is more generic and exploitative than thematically meaningful. The final minutes are messily set up, to say the least, and fail to make the impact they yearn for. "Empire" has its visual and character attributes, but the culmination of its 90 minutes is akin to reaching out for something substantial, and coming away with nothing but thin air.
©2002 by Dustin Putman