You are John Leguizamo. You sell drugs, you run a gang, you work the streets, you live the life. Times are good, you have a girl, she’s up the duff and you’re a happy crackhead with a family on the way. But one day, in a turf war with a rival crew, you witness a young child accidentally shot dead. You’re shaken, you’re stirred, you find yourself suddenly weary of the business and you want out. You have money put away, you have dreams to move to a quieter and safer location, you want to live an easy life on the fruits of your illicit gains. You really want to read a DVD review that doesn’t use the word ‘you’ so much.
Along comes a Wall Street type (Peter Sarsgaard) with promises of huge gains from some big time investments and asks “Do you want in?”. You say yes, I want it all, I want a big score, I want some legit profits, I want enough to get away. It starts off well, you make easy money, you move a step up the ladder of legitimate life, move uptown, make new friends, make enemies of old friends, get a new apartment, avoid the old streets, move one step closer to your dream, one step further from where you came from.
A really big investment opportunity arises; big money is needed, more than you have. If you get in on the deal you reach your goal and finally make it out. You go to your old mob boss, cut her in on the deal, promise big returns if she’ll loan you a one and a half million dollars. She goes for it, you make the investment, your Wall Street friend suddenly disappears, and you, my friend, are in the shit big time…
John Leguizamo is Victor, the key player in the story above, written and directed by first timer Franc Reyes, in a story they want you to believe is unique in that it presents you with an insider view of the world of Latinos involved in crime. It is also the first Latino-produced film backed by Hollywood. Does any of this make a difference to the film? No? What matters is that the story is far too derivative to stand alone in the genre, the dramatics playing out like many other (better) entries in the well populated (or is that saturated?) field.
Entertaining in a light and fluffy way in that it offers up nothing new, but on the flipside doesn’t necessarily do anything too shabbily, there is one noticeable (and in my eyes unforgivable) misstep in that the ending is simply too close for comfort to that of Carlito’s Way. The fact that Leguizamo is involved in both, and uniquely tied into the outcome of both in one way or another is either a strange oversight, misjudged flattery or outright theft.
Easily on par with the laziness of the ending in the used and abused device of a criminal wanting to go straight, get legit, get out of the biz before his time runs out, etc bloody etc. For the average person sick of their job, marriage, flatmates or country and wishing to start a new life it’s usually a simple matter of packing up some belongings, telling the boss to get stuffed and kicking their cat over the fence.
Criminals and gangsters, on the other hand, are stupid (note to criminals and gangsters reading this: Please don’t kill me). For some bizarre reason, they have to go through a lengthy process of setting up final scores, settling debts, mending old wounds and paying their last respects before they can jump on a plane and settle down in Costa Rica with a scooter rental shop along the beach.
If they spent more time in front of the TV with a stack of gangster themed DVDs instead of dealing out rough justice to the lowlifes, watching the bimbos at the BadaBing and snorting their own product, what they would have learned is that in one way or another something will inevitably go wrong during their elaborate plans and they will wind up face down in a shallow ditch in a cornfield or end up in a closed casket. Or end up in a closed casket in a shallow ditch in a cornfield, if itso happens their killer is a little indecisive.
I have thought long and hard about why this is so (time taken: eight seconds), and I think it comes down to an unwritten part of the criminal code of cinematic conduct, which features such rules as: #12 - Never talk to guys who look like Johnny Depp, #45 - Always wear a shiny grey suit and a black tie, #4 - Always tell people you’ll have Sal take care of things for you (even if you don’t know anyone named Sal) and the old favourite #112 - When arrested, always boast that you’ll be out on bail in time for lunch.
Although Empire doesn’t dip too heavily into this rule book, it does commit one other particular sin which is a trend that should be stopped pronto: the use of rappers as actors. What have they got to add to any film, besides poor diction and even worse acting ‘skills’? Just because they claim to have lived the tuff life in song doesn’t mean people want to pay money to see them mumble their way through 90 minutes of posing and bluster. Stop it, and hire some real actors.
So, gripes aired, dirty laundry cleaned and undies on the line, what Empire comes down to is this: It’s okay. Not terrific, not compelling, not a film to rave about to friends when they’re trying to tell you they want to jump off a bridge. It’s an okay film worthy of a midweek rental at best, save your Fridays and Saturdays for something a little more satisfying.
The anamorphically enhanced 2.35:1 picture is preserved here in its original theatrical ratio (not sure if this was shown theatrically here, but I doubt it). It’s a quality transfer, handling everything that Reyes and his D.o.P. throw at it stylistically with aplomb. Night scenes appear deliberately heavy with shadows and minimal lighting leading to a little flattening of the image, but as Reyes puts it in his commentary, it can lend a sort of minimalism to certain shots that has its moments.
This also comes blessed with a 5.1 DTS track to accompany the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix, both satisfying any need you have to give a little attention to your sub, the Latin and hiphop beats putting out plenty in that regard. The soundscape has some life to it, moving about the channels, not too aggressively, but the clarity and separation good enough to be transparent keeping your mind off the audio and on the film instead.
The selection of bonus material looks reasonably comprehensive, but isn’t terribly filling. The Making of... reveals Leguizamo to be less than eloquent, which I admittedly found surprising, and a little annoying, and perhaps even a bit disappointing, unless he is extremely reserved in releasing his true opinions on the project and it just came across wrong. Writer/director Reyes hosts this feature, and walks us through the cast/characters, naturally with nothing but compliments from all and sundry, and discusses how his own youth in the Bronx served as a basis for the screenplay. Not too shabby as these things go.
The deleted scenes were justifiably cut from the film, having added nothing, the trailer poured from a mould and naturally makes the film look far better than it is, and probably shouldn’t be watched before the film. Afterwards, if you’re feeling particularly moronic you can indulge in the trailer for 2 Fast 2 Furious 2 Stoopid. The Los Angeles premiere footage is brief, containing various people involved in the film exchanging the same platitudes that you see on every DVD.
The audio commentary is a typical self-congratulatory blabfest that didn’t really work for me, especially in light of how I felt about the derivative nature of the film. Technical aspects masked a little, but overall I really didn’t feel engaged by this, the comments often breaking down to “we shot this where I used to work” banality. Maybe I’ll try again another time... and maybe I won’t. Most likely I won’t. But I’m a crazy cat, so you never can tell what I’ll do next. Whoah! I just took off my pants! Look out you plebs!