Thursday 19 January 2017

Movie Review: Empire (2002)

A routine crime drama, Empire tramples on exceedingly familiar gangster land territory and offers little in the way of originality.

In New York City, Vic Rosa (John Leguizamo) is a young and charismatic drug lord, leading a gang with control over a patch of the South Bronx. Vic and his lieutenants get involved in turf skirmishes with rival gangs from adjacent districts, although all the local dealers are supplied by the same drug import queen, known only as La Colombiana (Isabella Rossellini). Vic is dedicated to his girlfriend Carmen (Delilah Cotto) but also desperate to move up in the world.

He spots an opportunity to build a more legitimate fortune when he meets slick Manhattan investment banker Jack Wimmer (Peter Sarsgaard), who is living the rich life with glamorous girlfriend Trish (Denise Richards). Jack offers to cut Vic in on mysterious investments with promises of quick returns, and soon the money is rolling in. Vic and Carmen move into a swanky Manhattan apartment, but with the stakes getting higher, Vic discovers that leaving his old life behind isn't as easy as he thought.

Empire was an initially modest sub-studio effort aimed at Hispanic audiences. But gradually the profile of the cast expanded and the film, directed by Franc Reyes, saw a wider release. No one really needed to bother. While the movie carries some style and is competently assembled, this is a rehash of all the well-known gangster film themes, familiar since the early 1930s.

Every character is a cliché, every line of dialogue predictable, and the narration by Vic is oh-so- bland. Empire is not violent enough to cause a stir, nor groundbreaking in its portrayal of how gangsters, criminals and their molls think, act and react. It's a mercifully compact 90 minutes of lined up and knocked down platitudes.

Reyes does achieve some good aesthetic contrasts between the ramshackle street gang existence of the South Bronx and the glistening allure of Manhattan's high life, so at least Vic's quest to buy himself an upgrade is coherent. But the ease with which the supposedly whip-smart Vic gets seduced by Jack's ill-defined investment schemes introduces a severe central character contradiction.

John Leguizamo gives it his all in the central role, but often seems to be trying too hard. Peter Sarsgaard glides through the film with a glazed look of disinterest. The rest of the cast earnestly labour against the tight confines of characters who live and die within strict definitions.

Empire in not inherently deficient; just entirely derivative and utterly unnecessary.

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