EMPIRE is a nitty, gritty look at life on the mean streets of the wrong part of New York. Its message, crime doesn’t pay, isn’t a new one, but any film that proffers a moral compass is one worth paying attention to. Also worth paying attention to is co-producer John Leguizamo’s performance as Victor Rosa, a street-wise, drug dealer whose blessing and whose curse is to see the big picture.
That picture would be the dead-end that life one the streets really is. What he discovers is that his life in the Bronx isn’t so very different from what happens in the boardrooms of Manhattan, the stakes are just as high, the consequences just as dire. It’s just the trappings that are different.
Victor has done well for himself and though he has a code of behavior, honor isn’t the right word to describe it. He does, after all, deal heroin, but, as he explains at the beginning of the film he doesn’t cut this special blend he has dubbed “Empire” as much as his competitors do. That brings him the repeat business of a loyal clientele. Plus, the product is pure, mostly, and there something about purity that appeals to Victor. And while he has no problem beating to a pulp someone trying to invade his turf, or put a bullet in someone’s head if it sends the right message, he’s also the kind of guy that will shell out 17 grand to buy his sweetie a diamond necklace just to see her smile. He may be a criminal, but his heart is in the right place. Sort of.
After a hit goes bad killing an innocent bystander, Victor decides to take the millions in cash that he’s accumulated over the years and can’t put into a bank for fear of catching the government’s eye and go legit. Through a friend of his college co-ed girlfriend, Carmen, the one with the diamond necklace, he meets an investment banker who shows him ways to double his money without risking his life. In fact, all he has to do is sit back in his new loft and let the money roll in.
And while all this should make life even better for Victor and Carmen, cracks begin to develop in their relationship. Old friends aren’t quite sure what to make of the new Victor, and his old boss, La Colombiana, played by a startlingly coiffed Isabella Rossellini, isn’t going to just let him walk away from making her millions.
Leguizamo delivers an understated performance that may be counterintuitive considering all the mayhem, but effectively communicates a guy who has always been in charge of his life and thinks he still is. There’s a look in his eyes when things start going wrong that goes from cocky to wary that’s wonderfully subtle. The direction by writer Franc. Reyes delivers the skewed-eye view of life in the drug world. Even for those who don’t use, and that would be Victor and his gang, its still a Kool-Aid colored world of strobe lights melting into slo-mo and fish-eye lenses. Nothing is sure, nothing is safe, and no one can be trusted to do the smart thing. Where the film fails is in its dialogue, particularly between its women characters. When Carmen, played with a tough sort of sweetness by Delilah Cotto, has a heart-to-heart with college classmate Denise Richards, the one with the investment banker boyfriend, the word that floats to mind is awkward. Sonia Braga, an actress who could read her address book and move us to tears or laughter depending on her mood, fares better at Carmen’s mother, who hates Vincent but adores her daughter.
It’s fairly easy to figure out where EMPIRE is heading, and what will happen along the way. This is a cautionary tale, after all, whose main character begins the voice-over narration by telling us that he wishes he’d known then what he knows now. But Leguizamo is an actor who is emminently watchable and here he’s celebrating doing the right thing, even if it isn’t exactly the right way.