Empire

on December 06, 2002 by Annlee Ellingson
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   Franc Reyes' "Empire" purports to challenge one's preconceived notions about what it takes to succeed on the streets and on the Street (as in Wall). The film posits that a hustler is a hustler, whether his or her business is legitimate or not. It's an intriguing idea. It's too bad that the characters don't live up to the promise.

   Victor Rosa (John Leguizamo) is a young, handsome Latino gangster who has set up shop in the South Bronx. With a comparable entrepreneurial spirit to that of Rockefeller, Carnegie and Gates, he has made a name and lucrative living for himself peddling Empire, his specialized brand of heroine mix. Victor has carved out his own version of the American Dream for himself and his beautiful fiancée Carmen (Deliliah Cotto).

   Through one of Carmen's college girlfriends, Victor meets Jack (Peter Sarsgaard), an investment banker uncharacteristically embarrassed about his profligate surroundings. The two immediately connect, Jack telling Victor, "Anyone who judges you for what you do is a hypocrite." Soon Victor has decided to take a shot at the clean life, relying on Jack to get him in on the most profitable deals on the stock market. But, out of his element, Victor begins to betray the people and practices that made him a success in the first place and ultimately pays a bigger price going legit than he ever could have imagined.

   The premise here is promising--that an uneducated gangbanger could possess the business sense to succeed in a white-collar world. But Victor comes off as naïve in his relationship with Jack. It's clear from the beginning that he's being taken for a ride, that he's jumping into something that he knows too little about, that Jack's flattery is condescending. It would have been more fun had Victor been one step ahead of the game, suspecting the ruse from the start--or had the scam been more of a surprise.

   Still, Victor is great character, played with macho zeal by Leguizamo. As the more honorable of the two, he ultimately gets his revenge, and Jack, portrayed confidently by Sarsgaard, collapses pathetically, like a house of cards, in the face of what he has wrought.

   Reyes' portrait of gangster life is both amusing and menacing. He has postulated very funny expenditures of their excessive amounts of cash: on a collection of African furniture, on the world's biggest stereo system in the world's smallest apartment. And he doesn't disappoint when it comes to gunplay, though he does revert to a conventional, shoot-'em-up style--slow motion, etc.--that cries out for a more creative approach.

Starring John Leguizamo, Denise Richards, Peter Sarsgaard, Sonia Braga, Isabella Rossellini and Fate Joe. Directed and written by Franc Reyes. Produced by Daniel Bigel and Michael Mailer. No distributor set. Action drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 95 min
Tags: John Leguizamo, Denise Richards, Peter Sarsgaard, Sonia Braga, Isabella Rossellini and Fate Joe. Directed and written by Franc Reyes. Produced by Daniel Bigel and Michael Mailer, action drama
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